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17 Mar 2016

Is It the End? John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead Turn '10 Cloverfield Lane' Into an Acting Exhibition

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Just as he did with the first Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams has again managed to sneak a movie into multiplexes under a shroud of secrecy and mystery: With a little more than a couple of months’ notice, a film shot under the code name Valencia became 10 Cloverfield Lane.

What’s the significance of the word “Cloverfield” in that movie title? Abrams is calling this film a blood relative to the original found-footage monster movie. This new film is not a found footage film, thank god, but after seeing it, I can tell you the title is not misleading—although you shouldn’t go to this thinking you will see the monster from Cloverfield laying waste to middle America. It’s a much different kind of movie.

The film starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on an urgent phone call with somebody. She grabs her keys, hits the road and drives for what appears to be many miles out of the big city and into the cornfields. After stopping for some gas, her car crashes for mysterious reasons. She wakes up from said crash with an IV drip—and her leg cuffed to a bar.

Shortly thereafter, she meets Howard (John Goodman). Howard seems a little bit anxious and tells her that she needs to hydrate and practice using crutches. And, oh yeah, the end of the world is nigh. No one really knows why, but the air is now contaminated, and they must reside in his emergency bunker for what could be years.

There’s another inhabitant of the bunker: Howard’s soft-spoken neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Emmett allegedly helped Howard put the bunker together, and he’s not really sure why the world is ending, either. All of this leads the beautiful Michelle, in the captive hands of two questionable strangers, to be suspicious. She wants to be outside, even if the world is dying.

Is the world really ending? Howard seems to think so, citing nuclear war and alien invasion as possibilities. Emmett, meanwhile, does not necessarily seem all that worried about it. He just seems happy to be around Michelle all day, putting puzzles together. Is it just a grand plan for two creepy guys to imprison a beautiful woman for their perverted means?

First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg does a nice job of keeping the audience guessing. I went into 10 Cloverfield Lane with my own guesses, based on the trailers, regarding how everything would play out, and how the film would tie into the “Cloverfield Universe.” My guesses were, for the most part, confirmed—although there were a few deviations.

Winstead is an acting treasure who doesn’t get enough opportunities to shine; see her performance in Smashed (2012) for proof. She’s equally good here, playing a strong-minded hostage justifiably brimming with paranoia. She’s very easy to root for, even when the screenplay tries to tilt sympathies toward Howard and Emmett.

In his meatiest role in years, Goodman is golden as the “maybe he’s a monster; maybe he’s a savior” survivalist. There are nuances in his work that will keep you guessing every second he’s onscreen. As for Emmett … this is no knock on Gallagher, but his character seems tacked on.

The film is a slick thriller with a few plot holes that might nag you afterward. For me, it offered few major surprises—although that has much to do with me seeing so many movies, and being savvy to many directorial tricks. When the movie did “get” me on occasion, it did so competently.

Above all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an impressive acting exhibition for Winstead and Goodman, who play really well off of each other. As more mysteries about Howard and the outside world are revealed, the tension ratchets up, and Trachtenberg proves himself a fine handler of all the elements.

I’m guessing 10 Cloverfield Lane is not the last movie we will see with “Cloverfield” in the title. Think of the Cloverfield movies as an anthology series with a few plot machinations tying things together. Two movies in, it’s proving to be a fine endeavor.

10 Cloverfield Laneis playing at theaters across the valley.

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