It says more about us as the conditioned viewer rather than the industry as a whole when seeing classic Hollywood techniques being utilized to their fullest extents sends a wave of glee up the spine. A lot of what makes 10 Cloverfield Lane work is in its subtleties and the fact that it never allows the viewer to be treated like they have a brain and not spoon fed content like a child.
Drifting back to the classics before it — instantly thinking of obvious picks such as Jaws or Alien — the film, directed by Dan Trachtenberg takes old tactics and uses them in a new setting, anchored by a stellar performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, to craft the perfect matinee movie.
10 Cloverfield Lane bares the same name as the 2008 film, but lacks any substantial connection to the found-footage horror, including dropping the gimmick that drew people in initially. This film follows Michelle (Winstead), who is on her way out of town after leaving her boyfriend when she is struck by a truck and knocked off the road. She awakens in what looks like a prison cell, her leg handcuffed and an IV bag resting over her. The door opens and in comes Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that the air outside is infected and himself, her, and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) are the only ones left.
In a scenario that feels very closely resembling recent Best Picture nominee, Room, the film is held together with a tightly-written script, penned by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. The group’s use of callbacks helps to keep the audience engaged, allowing them to latch onto small details of conversations or noticeable traits that can be used to for the inevitable escape attempt.
Trachtenberg also lacks any forceful camera movements, instead, implementing a more mature and effective show-and-tell technique that should be the staple of modern movie making. With echoes of Spielberg and Hitchcock, these writing motifs — as well as a few visual cues — creates the tension of the room and forms this claustrophobic aura that carries around the bunker they inhabit.
Goodman helps to push the audience’s comfort levels with an ambiguous history that never feels fully realized even up to the film’s climax. But it is the lead character, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, that steals the show — giving us a clever and capable “final girl” that seems in the mold of Lieutenant Ripley in the Alien series. Winstead is tasked with carrying the film’s introduction through its first 15 minutes with little to no dialogue, displaying the ability not only to do this, but to do it really well.
On the technical side, Tracthenberg is as impressive as anyone. Coming from commercials and a few short films before, it is incredible to see him instantly understand the subtle nuances of building characters on such a big stage. Granted, this movie was a secret project for a long time, but the production feels like something so much grander and that is thanks in part to his work.
The characters feels real, the emotions feel earned, and the decisions feel justified. This movie functions successfully with all of these moving parts and casts an utterly entertaining bit of cinema. It seems so insurmountable for something like this to work THIS well and yet against all odds, it did.
But how come?
Easy — this is a testament to a tight script, a smart director, and a talented cast. In a world where we are fed big-budget superhero movie after bloated sci-fi epic, there is room for a small-budgeted thriller with an hour and 40 minute run-time. There’s something even more cinematic about this type of offering than most of the other bigger contributions out now because this feels like something from the past.
We are given characters to root for that don’t feel canned or manufactured — they feel like genuine people. We are given a plot, that while mystical, has a grounded reality in abuse and fear that feels very real and poignant. And we are asked to fend for ourselves, asking the same questions as the characters inside, which is how a movie should function in the first place — telling us a story in a visual way.
10 Cloverfield Lane is no game-changer, but it is a sign that the older methods are not dead. We have room for smart, entertaining fare and we should find a way to support more of these.