Surprise!

Usually a movie is tied to the studio publicity machine. A teaser trailer may come out a year before the film is released, followed by two or three more trailers to build up expectations. However, producer J.J. Abrams turned that around by releasing a first trailer two months before a movie’s release and having it serve as the announcement of the production. He attached the trailer to the Michael Bay film 13 Hours, but not many saw that movie. The next trailer came out two weeks later and was shown on the Super Bowl 50 broadcast, so millions saw it. That opened a floodgate of curiosity about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The movie was filmed under the script’s original title, “The Shelter,” and also had the name “Valencia” attached to it during production in Louisiana. The script was by first-time screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken, whose previous work in the film industry was as, respectively, an assistant editor and an assistant producer. Abrams brought in Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, to polish the script. He gave the directing duty to Dan Trachtenberg, who’d done a 7 minute short based on the game Portal that had caught Abrams’ eye. 10 Cloverfield Lane was filmed with a miniscule $5 million budget. The secrecy around the movie was such that two of the stars thought the movie had been shelved because they heard nothing about its release.

The movie is essentially a three-person play. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her boyfriend and drives off into the Louisiana night, just as a report on the radio talks about a large power outage on the coast. After a stop for gas, she continues on her way only to get into an accident. She wakes up on a thin mattress in a cinderblock room with a saline I.V. in her arm, a brace on her knee – and a handcuff securing the brace to the wall. She eventually discovers that she’s in an underground shelter that was constructed by Howard (John Goodman), a former Navy man who’s a doomsday prepper. Also in the shelter is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local guy who’d helped build Howard’s shelter and then talked his way into it when a strange thing happened.

What follows is a taut meditation on paranoia and suspicion that keeps on twisting the audience’s perceptions. I’d call it Hitchcockian, except Alfred had a much more sedate way of filming, even with Psycho. Here, Trachtenberg creates a claustrophobic mystery that also makes you feel like you’re riding on a roller coaster on which the brakes have gone out. He also manages to pay off the story in an amazing climax.

Goodman is top-notch as Howard. You don’t know whether he’s a psycho or a prophet, innocent or malevolent, until a moment that will shock even the most jaded member of the audience. The mystery of his nature keeps the tension ratcheted up throughout the film, even when things seem to be going well. Gallagher effectively portrays the wild-card in the hand. The key role, though, is Winstead’s performance as Michelle. The audience experiences the movie through her perceptions, so it can be a hostage drama, an action story of survival, or a cat-and-mouse thriller depending upon the moment, and she shifts between the iterations smoothly. One fun note: Michelle’s boyfriend, who shows up only as a voice on the phone, was performed by Bradley Cooper, whose first big role was on JJ Abrams’ “Alias.”

The movie is more of a second cousin than a direct relative of 2008’s Cloverfield. Abrams had marketed that found-footage film was also kept under wraps until just before its release as well (also attached to another Michael Bay film, the first Transformers). Cloverfield grossed almost twice its $25 million budget in its first week and ended up taking in $170 million worldwide. It was directed by Matt Reeves, who went on to direct Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it was written by Drew Goddard who recently did The Martian as well as executive produced the Netflix adaptation of “Daredevil.” (Both Reeves and Goddard have executive producer credit on 10 Cloverfield Lane.)

In a sense the movie harks back to Cold War thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Fail Safe, but it keeps the focus much tighter than those earlier films. It also outshines the original Cloverfield. While it may be a cousin, it definitely lives in a much higher-class neighborhood.

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One thought on “Surprise!

  1. Great review thanks, but I think you are very kind calling it a “taut meditation on paranoia and suspicion”. Drop in for a read of my take on this mess of a film. I’m now following you.

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