Here’s how the Hollywood publicity machine usually works: the typical “event” movie we see every year is aggressively advertised through trailers, TV and online ads, posters and billboards. By the time the movie in question opens, we often feel bludgeoned and obligated to see something that has been relentlessly promoted for over a year. Seriously, think back to a time in your life before you knew about Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s not so easy, is it? By the time Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Deadpool opened, the only people on Earth who hadn’t seen the trailer were living on Tibetan mountain tops.
On the other hand, there’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, a movie no one knew even existed until Jan. 25 of this year (the day the trailer dropped out of nowhere). It opened a mere 47-days later and somehow, in the age of information, maintained its air of mystery. The efforts of executive producer J.J. Abrams to keep his movie a secret were unprecedented. More importantly, the film is terrific.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, a car crash survivor who finds herself in a hermetically sealed survivalist shelter. Her host and captor, Howard (John Goodman) informs her that, for reasons I’ll keep secret, they can never leave. The only other person living with them is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. of Short Term 12), who designed and built the shelter for Howard.
What occurs is incredibly claustrophobic and sometimes shocking. There are welcome, if brief, moments of comic relief but the suspense never lags from start to finish. This is the feature film debut of Dan Trachtenberg, who displays a directorial confidence and control in pacing that eludes most first-time filmmakers.
While structured like a three-person play, this isn’t entirely dialogue-driven and never loses its unsettling tone. The title brings to mind Abrams’ 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield, though I won’t comment on whether there’s a literal or only tonal connection.
Goodman has exuded a cuddly persona for so long, his work here is a reminder of how good he is playing a darker character. The film itself is like his performance: deliciously nutty and unpredictable.
This is one of the best roles Winstead has ever had. She’s shined in independent projects but her career in mainstream movies kept getting tripped up by poor choices or little seen projects. The strength of her work here should finally change all that. Gallagher Jr.’s character and performance kept me guessing the most, as Emmett appears to be the most sensible of Howard’s “guests.”
Reports have surfaced that another film based on Rod Serling’s classic TV series The Twilight Zone is in the works. Until that happens, here’s a movie that gives a prime example of what to aim for. Serling fans will recall classic Twilight Zone episodes like “The Shelter” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as they watch this. Its best scenes demonstrate how rewarding it is when movies are willing to take a risk and genuinely spring something bold on filmgoers.
In an age where most movies are made and promoted the same way, we’re fortunate that Trachtenberg and Abrams are resorting to old school showmanship. 10 Cloverfield Lane, both the movie itself and how we discovered it, is an exercise in surprising its audience. More, please.