Hollywood can be an extremely fickle place. The pursuit of art and expression is a rather unquantifiable goal, and when dreamers find themselves in studios who see only profit margins and returns on investment, it’s a balancing act to combine the two into a vision which embodies the aspirations and sentiments the writer and director wish to convey while providing a calculated risk that will guarantee some form of profit to justify its production.
One need only look at the release list over the last nine years or so, not so coincidentally following the most recent strike of the Writers Guild, to see how much integrity and innovation have been compromised in order to make “safe” films, mostly big name sequels or reboots, with more money pumped into effects than scripts and talent. Cameron Crowe’s 2015 flop Aloha and its leaked emails exposed in the Sony hack go to prove that the marketability and outlay are primary concerns, with execs flummoxed how it was even greenlit when all concerned knew “the script was ridiculous.”
And so, whilst this could have been one review of an indie thriller tentatively called “The Cellar” which wasn’t even announced until two months before release, the audience are now treated to a quasi-sequel to the 2008 found-footage film Cloverfield. Though it is hard not to be cynical as to the reasons this script was reworked, the original’s box office taking of $170,764,026 against a budget of $25m is a strong incentive to tie the two together, and given 10 Cloverfield Lane’s modest $15 million outlay it should not take long to rack up similar profits.
Eschewing the found footage approach, director Dan Trachtenberg’s debut is a taut, well-paced claustrophobic journey into the human psyche, the will to survive and the need to cling to what we view as the key to our humanity as in a wordless prelude, aspiring fashion designer Michelle (Sky High and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead) prepares to leave her unseen boyfriend.
Making her way towards the uncertainty of a new life with just a few belongings, she is distracted by her phone when she should be watching the road and her car is side-swiped. Waking in a windowless room, her wounds tended to but chained to the wall, she discovers her injuries are the least of her worries, her rescuer and jailer the short tempered and taciturn Howard (Argo and Trumbo’s John Goodman).
After a botched escape attempt, Howard reveals that there has been an attack, possibly chemical, possibly nuclear, and for their own safety they cannot leave the bunker. With them is another survivor, Emmet (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr) who helped Howard build this survival shelter. As misgivings fester and secrets and lies mount up, are any of the characters who they purport to be? Or is the post-apocalyptic world outside a secondary concern as they learn Sartre’s Huis Clos was more accurate than they would like, that Hell is other people?
Of course, a claustrophobic psychological thriller will bring comparisons with Hitchcock and Trachtenberg draws the audience in with an impressive display for a director new to the craft. Some may regard the plot devices and pacing as drawn from a textbook, but when pulled off as impeccably as this it is not just homage but the work of one defining a style which shows its inspirations.
Unlike the tired attempt at vicarious involvement of found-footage, Trachtenberg choreographs tension with dramatic music and well written characters, the dinner scene starting innocently and building to a crescendo almost uncomfortable to watch, a credit to the domineering figure of Goodman who blends wry humour with terrifying rage without becoming overly theatrical.
Resourceful from the outset, Winstead gives what could prove a career-defining performance, the way she adapts to the shifting situation reminding of Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Having played similar protagonists in the past, notably in The Thing, she is no stranger to this type of persona, but here she adds layers of depth to her performance without encroaching on cliché.
Not quite the yokel he appears and becoming stronger as his relationship with Michelle evolves, the endearing if slightly simple Emmett is portrayed in an open-ended way which leads one to consider whether there could be more to the backstory of all characters which is never uncovered, and together the three create a twisted modern echo of the stereotypical “nuclear family” which America was simultaneously scared of and prepared to become at the height of the Cold War.
Moving from whispers of Spielbergian wonder to an echo of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho as Michelle drives towards her destiny, Bear McCreary’s score is of a retro-thriller style, building the drama where needed and adding levity where the backdrop cannot. Whilst there is little in the way of visual variety, the cinematography maintains an oppressive feeling which offers the audience little respite.
With black humour throughout Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle’s tight script, it is not quite a flawless debut, with Emmett’s beard remaining precisely trimmed despite the passage of time and the final scenes out of keeping with the rest of the film, but the biggest spoiler is in fact the title itself, 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Undermining any ambiguity over whether Howard has imprisoned Michelle or rescued her from an unexplained catastrophic incident, the question is already answered by association with that earlier film and its decimation of New York City it depicted before this film has even begun.
Although as events unfolds it becomes apparent that the relationship is not that of a sequel or parallel film but an exploration of an alternative though similar sequence of events, the one burning question should be why wasn’t the first Cloverfield like this? If Hollywood still has the franchise fever, the poster boy for stripping away bloated budgets and effects in favour of the basics of good filmmaking can be found hiding at this very address.
10 Cloverfield Lane is now on general release and also screening in IMAX