"10 Cloverfield Lane" Breaks Down In Home Stretch

If you see “10 Cloverfield Lane,” take special note of John Goodman’s turn as Howard, a crackpot-survivalist. Hang on his every word. Consider every forehead wrinkle. It’s as exciting a performance as the historically underappreciated actor has ever given us. And it’s the saving grace of a film that willfully punts audience patience and goodwill into the stratosphere in its closing reel.

There’s an adequate thriller in “10 Cloverfield Lane” – 60 year-old man saves (or abducts) 30 year-old woman and stashes her in his doomsday shelter, claiming a world-ending chemical attack – but it doesn’t deserve to share a name with 2008 cinematic theme park ride “Cloverfield.” And its flaws are absolutely fatal.

Director Dan Trachtenberg acquits himself well enough. The first-timer makes excellent use of his inherently claustrophobic setting and his introduction of heroine Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is masterful. Without so much as a line of dialogue on the part of Winstead, Trachtenberg artfully presents the character and her circumstances (including a voice cameo from Bradley Cooper), bringing his protagonist to life out of mere screen direction. (The belated appearance of the movie’s title card is a particularly shrewd mix of editing and sound design.)

From there, the film lives up to its misleading name in one major way: it’s one big campaign of misinformation against the audience, attempting to keep us guessing as long as possible. Unfortunately, many of your guesses will be correct.

The screenplay’s introduction of the shelter’s third occupant, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), is inanely drawn out to no effect, failing to ferret out any discernible benefit to the story at large. And the character is filler, anyway. Goodman and Winstead are the movie, their game of cat and mouse (or is it cat and bigger cat?) comprising all of its best scenes.

Producer J.J. Abrams – director of the feverishly overvalued “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and poster child for overwrought mystery box marketing – has done the project no favors with his involvement.

The title alone is enough of an albatross around its neck (all indications are that it was hurriedly tacked onto a spec script), but an out-of-the-blue, utterly gripping trailer that announced the pic’s existence a mere two months prior to release ends up its greatest foe. Nothing in the final product is as captivating as that teaser or its modulated use of power-pop classic “I Think We’re Alone Now.” (The movie’s employment of the song is far less exciting.)

This is an archetypal case of anticipation trumping payoff, only times ten. The take here is miserable, eviscerating all that came before with a haggard discharge of so-so special effects that are entirely out of line with the preceding 80 minutes.

Moreover, the finale does very little with the limited but firm characterization of its heroine, moving her along the path she must go because the script dictates it. There’s nothing about her arc that isn’t telegraphed from early on, making for a final scene that’s even more obvious than it appears at first glance.

The logical fissures throughout (why does Howard cook breakfast for his unconscious captive?) aren’t deal-breakers but they do underscore the hastiness of the project – or at least its screenplay.

Apart from two strong lead performances and some memorable scenes (one involving a guessing game is terrifically written and staged), “10 Cloverfield Lane” is an old, familiar song that busts late and hard. It’s likely the most misleading anthology film since the Michael Myers-less “Halloween III: Season Of The Witch,” but where that film had its oddball pleasures, “Lane” feels safe and then, ultimately, unintelligible. Audiences deserve much better than its final reel, no matter the name of the movie.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: March 11, 2016
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenwriter: Josh Campbell, Matt Steucken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language)