Thursday, March 24, 2016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE Is a Fun, Clever Trip to the Twilight Zone


- 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is essentially the much-talked-about JJ Abrams "mystery box" in movie form. From the way it was marketed - with a stealth release of its trailer and a title that only added to the movie's mysteriousness - to the substance of the story itself, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the living, breathing embodiment of the Abrams aesthetic. But while this sort of breathlessly cryptic marketing and storytelling can really backfire when it feels forced, what we get here is something that feels much more organic - built from the ground-up to be a relatively simple Twilight Zone-like tale. Sure, there are some parts of the story that feel tacked-on (not surprising, given that the film started as something else, and only later became part of the thematically-linked Abrams-verse). But mostly, this is a pretty sleek, straightforward morality play that actually over-delivers on what was promised - thanks to some absolutely killer performances, and a tightly-scripted plot that provides plenty of pay-off, in ways both big and small. As someone who loves The Twilight Zone and Twilight Zone-esque stories, this was, overall, a very pleasant surprise.

The set-up here is really well done, and presents some pretty intriguing questions off the bat. The movie starts by introducing us to Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fleeing from her boyfriend after the two get into an off-screen fight. The implication is that Michelle is a runner - she gets out of Dodge when the going gets tough. Suddenly though, her life takes a turn for the insane. As she drives down an empty road, past fields and farmland, another car swerves into her path and collides violently. Michelle then wakes up in a bunker, disoriented. The bunker belongs to Howard (John Goodman), an intense man who alternates between genial and scary. Howard claims that he saved Michelle, because the world outside has gone to hell. Some sort of attack has happened. The air is poisonous. People are dying. But Howard saw this all coming, and was prepared. He claims he came across Michelle after her crash, and saved her by bringing her to the bunker. Another guy is there too - Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who'd helped Howard build the bunker. Emmett claims he took refuge there when the attacks began. But the question remains: did Howard really save Michelle, or did he kidnap her? And regardless, did these attacks really happen as he claims? Is the air really poisonous? And who (or what) did the attacking?

The movie really sings when it focuses on being a psychological thriller. One of the key reasons is that both Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are freaking great here. This is definitely the best that Winstead has been since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - and it feels like, finally, another movie has really given her the chance to shine. Her character, Michelle, is written fairly straightforwardly - and in some ways she is sort of the stereotypical, hyper-competent "final girl" that we've seen in countless horror flicks. But Winstead really makes Michelle a hero whose every move we hinge on. Winstead's eyes tell the tale. She's constantly thinking, plotting, planning. And we can see it all in her eyes. Winstead brings a cerebral intensity to the film that is to be commended - and she knows just how to toe the line between seriousness and self-awareness that the movie demands. Meanwhile, this is legitimately the best John Goodman performance in *years.* Goodman is at the height of his powers here - doing a variation on the lovable/scary dynamic he used to make The Big Lebowski's Walter an all-time cinematic icon. Goodman's Howard keeps you guessing - and every time you think you've got him figured out, Goodman throws a new wrinkle into the mix to make you wonder. Goodman makes Howard an intimidating presence, but at times he's also funny as hell. It's just an absolute tour de force performance, and I'd go so far to say that Goodman actually elevates the whole movie up a notch by sheer force of will. He brings his A-game here, and man, there's not much better than John Goodman's A-game.

The other real key to the movie's success is that director Dan Trachtenberg infuses the film with a fun, well-thought-out sense of videogame-like puzzle logic. At times, the movie takes on the trappings of a game in the way that Michelle surveys her surroundings figures out how to navigate a situation via conversation, items/tools, and routes for escape should the need arise. The movie has a couple of direct homages to various games, but overall, it really embraces the adventure-game aesthetic in a way that keeps you invested in Michelle's actions at all times. More so than in other movies of this nature, there's often direct A-to-B payoff in how events play out. Michelle hears someone mention an item, thinks about how she could use that item to her benefit, manages to steal the item, and then uses it in a clever way. In that sense, 10 CLOVERFIELD WAY is an incredibly videogame-like movie - but in a very cool (non-annoying/pandering) way.

So what doesn't work as well? Mostly, it's all the other "stuff" that has more to do with the fact that "DUDE! This is JJ Abrams' Presents: A New Cloverfield Movie!" - i.e. the stuff that gets away from the real meat of the story. A less problematic but still slightly-annoying example of this is all the time it takes for Michelle to get some very basic answers about her situation. We don't ever (thank god) reach Lost-like levels of no one asking the right questions and no one answering anything. But there are times in the movie's first act where you do sort of want to shout out "Come on, just ask for answers already!". Mostly, the movie is clever in the way that it withholds information for dramatic effect. But it does stumble at times.

What really sort of hurts the movie though is its final act. No spoilers here, but I will say this: while the big finale does more than deliver on the expected Cloverfield-brand spectacle, it honestly feels like too much. It was telling to me that I was somehow less invested in the film's big CGI-infused action bits than I was in its much-better-executed paranoid-thriller bits. The final act goes on too long, and it feels tacked on - like it's from a different movie entirely. And it forces Winstead to go from plucky, capable hero to Unstoppable Badass in a way that does not feel organic at all. That said, I would have been mostly okay with it if the tone of the final act was different. I mean, the entire movie is essentially a big-screen Twilight Zone episode, and yet somehow, the ending goes optimistic/sentimental on us. What?! If ever there was a movie that demanded a dark, bleak, The Mist-like ending, this is it. As it stands, the ending is more of an eye-roller than an exclamation point. I found it really odd (it might sound strange to say that a "good" ending is a bummer, but in this case, it's true).

Overall though, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE really impressed me. The meat of the movie - a paranoid sci-fi tinged parable - is extremely well done. Winstead and Goodman absolutely crush it, and help elevate the movie. It helps that they have a pretty clever, tension-filled script to work with. Dan Trachtenberg is also a director to keep an eye on - even though most of the film is set in a confined space, he makes every location a part of the puzzle. He really wrings maximum intensity out of the scenario presented. Some of the divergences into Abrams-ville derail things a bit (the ending in particular), but overall this is a movie well worth checking out. If the Cloverfield franchise is now going to be a modern day, cinematic Twilight Zone - then that's something to be excited for, and this is a nice way to kick things off.

My Grade: B+

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