The Pre-Trump Paranoia of 10 Cloverfield Lane
Spoiler warning for this review because this is a very spoiler sensitive film so you just have to assume it contains spoilers even if they’re not technically spoilers, but they probably are, so it’s best to have seen the film before reading on.
As the camera pans around to give a 360 degree view of the underground bunker where a majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane is set, there’s hope that one object will appear and make the scenario perfect: a ‘Vote Donald Trump’ sticker. Yes, this piece just dated worse than a technicolour T-shirt, because at the writing of this review Trump is running for President of the United States of America. Pre-Trump paranoia has set in—it feels like the world may end if he’s sitting in the Oval Office—and 10 Cloverfield Lane is a reflection of our collective anxieties delivered as an easily digestible thriller that feels like the progeny of a generation of creatives raised on M. Night Shyamalan’s twist heavy run of films in the 90s/00s.
Two 20-somethings, Michelle and Emmett (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. reeking of millennial) find themselves being held captive in a bunker by its creator, Howard (John ‘The Baby Boomer’ Goodman), who warns them not to leave because the world has ended following an attack. Howard takes pride in his doomsday prepping skills and foresight to predict his bunker would become handy one day. All Howard asks is for Michelle and Emmett to stay inside and be grateful they have been saved. Of course, when you put two generations in one room together, there’s going to be mistrust (especially when one is holding you against your will), and Michelle attempts to find out what happened to the outside world while uncovering Howard’s secrets in the process.
So, who killed the world? It’s the big mystery box question 10 Cloverfield Lane lumbers around as the millennials take on the boomer in the bunker, but it never seems to matter because this is the kind of film where any creature, virus or zombie circus clown could be lurking outside—the people are the real monsters. What makes 10 Cloverfield Lane more than just a long episode of The Walking Dead that got lost in an episode of The Twilight Zone is: Howard. Goodman’s performance lulls you into a false sense of security with his endearing teddy bear demeanour (still in currency from his Rosanne days) that cracks during fits of rage to reveal a frightening villain channeling a little of Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes from Misery but with less sadism. With Goodman it’s all about the breathing, it’s laboured, and as he pauses to take in air between sentences he allows enough time linger to create tension as you question what Howard is going to do next. Not many actors can dramatically exhale air out their nose like Goodman in sixty different ways. Goodman’s Howard is also so indicative of the American state of fear that drives people to become a doomsday prepper, especially in the shadow of a potential Trump Presidency; you can picture Howard building his bunker while wearing a ‘make America great again’ cap. The bunker is filled with Americana for comfort, most notably, a grand jukebox stocked with the soundtrack to Howard’s life. Most of the bunker is a time capsule designed by Howard to keep his America in stasis (and possibly use it to rebuild it one day) and his motives for keeping Michelle reveal more about his twisted form of preservation. All these elements mash together to make the dynamics of the bunker the film’s strongest suit.
Winstead proves she’s the new Sigourney Weaver in 10 Cloverfield Lane and if Goodman is all about the breathing, Winstead is all about the eyes. A majority of the plot leaves Winstead reacting to things as the surrogate audience member character/protagonist but she sells it so well using the whites of her eyes. A dinner table scene where Michelle attempts to steal Howard’s keys plays out mostly in close-ups and Winstead amps the panic with just one sideways glance while she holds her body still. Winstead’s war chest of glances enliven 10 Cloverfield Lane because it’s trappings as an interior set film ensures there’s intimacy with the actors because the range of shots director Dan Trachtenberg can use in a confined space is limited, and that’s why you cast Winstead. Gallagher Jr. loses out a little because his character’s primary role is to deliver exposition and he acts like a third wheel, only appearing when an information dump is necessary.
The atmosphere of 10 Cloverfield Land is thick with mistrust and Trachtenberg matches it with tense sequences where Michelle and Emmett’s commitment to the bunker is put to the test, yet it never feels compromised by the location-based premise. There are certainly lulls, probably envisioned as a chance for the audience to take a breather, but it’s a shame Trachtenberg misses the opportunity to be unrelenting. And this explains a little why the ending goes for broke and the film starts to act like a blockbuster; it’s like a cheap tequila chaser to an okay beer. Satisfaction will be in the mind of the beholder but it’s a finale that shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who notices J.J. Abrams listed as a producer on this film.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a really good ‘good movie’, the kind a polite co-worker recommends or one people will discover scrolling Netflix in the near future and think they’ve found a hidden gem. That’s if we’re all still here if Trump hasn’t activated nuclear war as President.
The Popcorn Junkie