Saturday, March 12, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane"

 3 / 5 

Hitchcock called it a "MacGuffin," that thing that is so essential and yet inconsequential to the plot that everything hangs on it, even though it could be nothing at all, like the microfilm in North By Northwest that contains -- who knows, and who cares?  Without it, there would be no movie.

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, everything is the MacGuffin, a concept that works ingeniously well to generate suspense and intrigue all the way until the final few moments.  How tempting it would have been to tell us what was on that microfilm, whether there was a real Maltese Falcon.  It's a temptation that 10 Cloverfield Lane just can't resist.

Think for a moment about what a different movie Pulp Fiction would have been if it had continued and shown us the contents of the briefcases and played out the consequences of opening it up.  Questions would be answered, but to what end?

Questions are indeed answered in 10 Cloverfield Lane, as if producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk learned too hard the lessons of angry fans of Lost -- forgetting that, fandom be damned, the lack of answers is what kept the thing going so long and made it so satisfying; it only failed when it tried to start providing solutions to its endless puzzles.

In fact, the essence of Lost is felt throughout 10 Cloverfield Lane, which begins with a similar setup: a crash (this time in a car), a central character who wakes up in a mysterious setting, and an underground hatch.  And just like Lost's hatch, this one has a purpose that's equally outlandish.

The central character is Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has just had a fight with her fiancé and left town when her car skids off the road.  When she awakens, it seems she's being held hostage in a well-stocked underground bunker, but the giant of a man who runs the place assures her otherwise.  He's Howard, played by John Goodman, and he claims that there's been "an invasion."  Russians, maybe.  Or Martians.  He's not sure.  Like Reverend Scott in The Poseidon Adventure, he's only sure of one thing: Everyone who was "up there" is dead.

There's a third inhabitant of the bunker, a neighbor named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), and though Michelle is rightfully dubious, Emmett claims he saw how it all started, that's why he's there.  But why does Michelle hear cars rumbling above them, and how can she be sure this isn't some elaborate kidnaping ruse?  She can't.  Nor can the audience.

And this is the slow-burn beauty of 10 Cloverfield Lane for at least three-quarters of its carefully controlled story, which is skillfully directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg from a script by Damien Chazelle, Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken -- who no doubt spent many hours studying what worked and didn't in the Abrams-produced Lost.

It's a delight to watch how 10 Cloverfield Lane revels in taking viewers right up to the point of certainty -- then pulling back and seeding doubt, before doing it all over again.  It plays the really clever Hitchcockian game of getting us to wonder if we haven't misjudged who is the hero and who is the villain, and pulls a shocker of a plot twist just when the jolt is most needed.

Goodman's Howard is crazy, all right, a fact Goodman plays to the hilt, letting Winstead rise to the challenge of playing a character who's both crafty, capable and heroic, yet unsure and fearful, both of her captor and of the possibility he might be telling the truth.  He's a more frightening and satisfying presence than the movie's ultimate revelations.

Because 10 Cloverfield Lane finally needs to address the question of its titular roadway, it needs to let go of the cat-and-mouse thriller with an odd tinge of mystery and become literal.  If the net effect isn't a disappointment, exactly, the movie's final 10 minutes are tonally at odds with all that has come before.  The movie sacrifices its sublime sense of mystery on a micro-scale for the sake of something that feels a bit too familiar and too grand.

The ending will probably divide audiences, and perhaps rightfully so.  Those expecting the movie to fulfill its inherent promise of providing a link to the Cloverfield of the title will probably leave satisfied, but those who want to see the central drama played through to the very end might feel a little deflated as the plot heads into some familiar territory that undoes just a bit of the delicious anxiety that the three-player drama in the bunker produced.

It turns out that things that go bump in the night are scarier when you can't see them.

Viewed March 11, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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