‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ keeps its audience guessing

Follow-up feature to Abrams film thrills by deliberately withholding concrete answers

I think I liked 10 Cloverfield Lane for the wrong reasons. It’s a movie whose scant marketing makes it look like something which would build up to an unexpected conclusion or plot twist, not to mention the promise of expanding the universe of J. J. Abrams’s 2008 found-footage gem Cloverfield. While director Dan Trachtenberg’s new feature is certainly based on the disclosure of withheld information, it ends up raising more questions than it answers—but that’s OK. Ultimately, the drama within its cramped setting is more intriguing and exciting than the conclusion to which it builds.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but if you want to really experience this movie, stop reading now. In Louisiana, a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground bunker with Howard (John Goodman), who claims there has been “an attack.” The bunker is oddly homey; blue walls, a jukebox blasting oldies hits, some DVDs, and a pantry chock-full of peanut butter decorate the room.

I have a short attention span, but this film had me on the edge of my seat—I couldn’t look away. Much of the film’s effect – just as the trailers suggest – comes from how little we know. Has there been an attack? Is Howard telling the truth? Or is he a crazy old man fulfilling some delusion? It’s hard to tell because the film hints at the possibility of either outcome. The truth of Howard’s testimony conflicts with his temperamental, unbalanced personality. He is hell-bent on maintaining order in the bunker, snapping at the slightest provocation.

For all intents and purposes, Howard is the antagonist—but is he really? If this is all a farce, Howard is a dangerous lunatic. But if what he says is true, then his demeanor is understandable. But because we can’t tell whom to believe, the agency of the characters becomes muddled. Is it in Michelle’s best interest to escape? Trachtenberg continually supplies the audience with conflicting information which leaves us guessing. It’s the inability to fully anticipate what’s coming next that makes the movie’s best moments resonate so well. Granted, not all of these guesses are resolved – in fact, few of them are – but the film’s excellent handling of its central tension compensates for its lack of resolution.

This conflict is primarily one of perception. Michelle believes the attack is all bunk and wants to return to her life up above, whereas Howard wants to maintain order in his new world underground. At the center of this conflict is a desire to hold on to our reality, our lifestyles and our memories. The bunker hearkens back to the fallout shelters Americans built in their backyards during the Cold War as a means of preserving their world in the face of annihilation. Sometimes our ideas of reality aren’t compatible.

This lack of knowledge is what makes 10 Cloverfield Lane work so well. Too many movies rely on payoff and revelation for entertainment. The fierce drama which unfolds in the bunker ends up asking more questions than it answers (and clearly sets itself up for a sequel), but I guess that’s its intent. It’s a movie which lights the candle that reveals just how much more darkness there is.

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