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Movie Review: '10 Cloverfield Lane'

10 Cloverfield Lane wins with white-knuckled style, but suffers from an all-too familiar ending.

WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.

Review by Matt Cummings

If 2008's Cloverfield proved anything, it's that a $25m can bet you a whole lot of monster movie without actually showing any monster. Its "blood relative"(according to Producer JJ Abrams) 10 Cloverfield Lane was made for only $5m, but the effect is a whole lot better, even though the ending utterly disappoints.

Having just left her boyfriend (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds her life is once again in pieces as she pumps gas at a lonely station. Soon, her life takes an unexpected turn, as she's hit by another car, sending hers tumbling off the road. She awakens to a busted up knee and chained to the wall in an undisclosed location, courtesy of her captor Howard (John Goodman). He informs Michelle that an attack has occurred above his bunker, and that his kindness is the only reason why she's still alive. Soon, Michelle learns that Howard has another guest: the genial Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr), whose blind appreciation of Howard's idiosyncrasies actually cover up for something more sinister lurking inside their benefactor. As the three settle down for a long stay-cation in the airtight bunker, Michelle begins to worry that Howard's violent tendencies aren't the only secret he's keeping about the outside world. She must battle a twisting road of reveals to decide whether her future includes living in such a repressive situation.

10 Cloverfield Lane is at first a near-brilliant psychological thriller, deepening the wounds Michelle has experienced with a mixture of dread and intimacy that makes it hard not to bite ones nails or grip the seat arms. It effectively blurs the line in this now-burgeoning monster universe - kindly called The Clover-verse - into something new, a movie that doesn't necessarily need a monster because the rest is so well done. We're first on Michelle's side, wary of Howard's intents, only to be thrown back into our own cell the next minute when new brutal evidence is presented that something is dreadfully wrong outside. Everything Howard says sounds reasonable, and yet Goodman's creepy portrayal makes it difficult to accept him. And then Writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle turn the blade a bit more, sending our three characters on a rollercoaster of distrust, as Michelle and Emmett plan a dangerous escape. But you're wondering the whole time if there is anywhere for them to go. What if Howard is right?

10 Cloverfield Lane lays this scenery of despair, thanks to the terrific performances of its leads. Winstead is believable as both victim and orchestrator of her own failure, sewing those seeds but ultimately surviving because of them. She isn't a household name, but I'll bet she's about to become one. Goodman takes Walter from The Big Lebowski and adds an apocalyptic conspiracy theorist that works perfectly. That would have been enough, except that Goodman and 10's writing armada even reveal a softer side of Howard that makes him almost reasonable. Gallagher, Jr might be the forgotten one here, but his hillbilly comedy provides perfect levity and a sense that Emmett has made some truly dumb life choices, all of which can be wiped out if he can survive. In many ways, the first 2/3s of 10 Cloverfield Lane perfectly proves that a small cast and budget still work in today's big tentpoles.

But before you think that I'm ready to anoint 10 Cloverfield Lane as the first genuine Oscar performance of 2016, be aware that the movie has its issues. There's no Geiger counters to measure fallout, no AM radio (although a CB is prominent) to monitor potential chatter. But more important, I'm OK when movies end on a sad note, which this one does not. The big CGI spectacle that trips its way into a good movie is not at all appropriate as Michelle learns the truth and battles the real enemy outside of her prison. It doesn't really match up that an alien species who's traveled millions of miles wouldn't know how to immediately kill Michelle once she emerges, leaving what could have been an amazing ending off the table. Why do characters need to survive, when real life smacks us in the face daily to remind us otherwise? There's also the Mary Sue element at work here: how is a clothing designer suddenly able to become a heroine, when all of her life has been being the exact opposite? Tractenberg makes Michelle's plight believable but not plausible.

Composer Bear McReary injects 10 Cloverfield Lane with the same militaristic energy that makes his work on NBC's Blindspot so appealing, while Cinematographer Jeff Cutter paints a dreary existence and some neat Gravity-like first-person shots when Michelle makes her escape. Even Producer JJ Abrams' ability to hide the terms surrounding the film's production proves he's a master at the movie version of the feigned withdraw.

In the end, 10 Cloverfield Lane is best taken with a grain of franchise salt; one can only make the slightest connection between it and Cloverfield, and you'll frankly be better off if you don't try. This is a smart thriller, betrayed by its own desire for a happy ending, a practice that I wish film would get down. 10 Cloverfield Lane could have emerged as an early Oscar contender if it had.

10 Cloverfield Lane is rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language and has a runtime of 103 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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