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'10 Cloverfield Lane' is a crackerjack thriller that works as its own thing

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a precise performance in a film that doesn't need the word "Cloverfield" in it too wow.
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    In "10 Cloverfield Lane," John Goodman plays a man who's suspicious even when doin|Paramount Pictures

‘10 Cloverfield Lane’
Director:
Dan Trachtenberg
Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

Mary Elizabeth Winstead never looks comfortable in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” As Michelle, she tends to shoot serious side-eye at her captor and maybe-savior, John Goodman's Howard, a shambling potential psycho and definite hothead. He claims to have rescued her twice: first from a nasty car accident, then from an ambiguous massive attack that has, he claims, rendered the outside air sick with toxins. That’s why the two of them — plus a more easygoing though still nervous third wheel, John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmet — are hunkered in Howard’s lovingly decked-out underground cellar. Even when Howard’s theories are at least partly proven true, Michelle still doesn’t rest easy. Nor should she.

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But Michelle’s no damsel in distress, nor a superhuman waiting to unlock her powers, nor a woman whose suffering and anguish we’re supposed to, on some level, enjoy. She’s scared, but she’s not stupid. Her body is frozen with fright but her eyes are alive and intelligent and, most of all, critical. She’s quick to surmise that, on the level or not, her hulking host is a ticking time bomb. He’s prone to angrily demand thanks for his selfless rescue acts, establishes weird ground rules for his young charges (“no touching”) and generally demonstrate that the people most prepared for a worst case scenario are usually the least together. She knows that by saying next-to-nothing, by playing the demure female, she can throw her hulk of a host off the scent of her mistrust.

Winstead’s precisely contained performance isn’t the only deftly controlled part of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” It’s a finely calibrated shape-shifter that is, by turns, a kidnapping saga, a prison break picture, a post-apocalyptic grinder, a chamber dramedy and at least two other types of movies we won’t spoil — though, given the title and the presence of J.J. Abrams as a producer, one is an easy guess. There are twists galore, but this isn’t just about getting to the next hairpin turn. It’s about staying in the moment, which is usually thick with tension, even when things have momentarily chilled out into board game sessions and screenings of VHS horror junk.

Here’s a good time to confess this writer went to undergrad film school with the director, Dan Trachtenberg, making his feature film debut. In the interest of being honest, we’ll say he slightly loses the thread during a somewhat rushed climax, which mildly and briefly succumbs to chaos editing as well as a groaning action movie cliche or two. But we have no guilt in saying, tiny carps aside, he’s turned in a fine piece of old school workmanship, tackling a script he didn’t write (but which “Whiplash” maven Damien Chazelle, and two other writers, did) thoughtfully and with extreme prejudice.

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It’s easy to overrate how Trachtenberg makes a lot out of a little. It’s a film with about three rooms, an air duct, a couple open spaces and a mere four on-screen actors, one of whom is only on screen to quickly die a horrible death. But it’s no mere stunt. There’s subtle artistry afoot. Trachtenberg’s no show-off but a confident hand — someone who knows, in the more hair-raising scenes, to cut sharply on action, to do a mean pull-focus, to find the right place for a decent token PG-13 f-bomb. Trachtenberg carefully and quietly erects a tiny world whose cramped location never becomes visually repetitive. Even when it’s just close-ups of the three leads, they have force. He isolates each of his three leads in frames to make the lack of trust or familiarity between them visceral.

And they’re great close-ups: Each actor, perhaps overqualified for a mere inflated (if relatively low-budget) blockbuster, keeps finding new shades inside their characters. Howard can be both menacing and empathetic, and there’s times even Michelle can’t help but react to his softer side. A gentle moment finds them bonding over his disastrous attempt to distill his own gross-tasting bunker man vodka. Such scenes don’t just offer respite from a relentless nerve-jangler; they speak to the way we always strain to find common ground, even with the guy who might really be a madman destined for a nasty flip.

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"10 Cloverfield Lane" does so much right in such a breezy way, no less in the way it casually avoids casual sexism.Michelle is never sexualized and her pain never fetishized. The only truly vexing bit is that it's part of a bigger franchise at all. It works fine as its own self-containted unit, and the idea that it's a small chunk of a bigger world should irk anyone who misses an era, not long ago, when a film could just be a film. At least it puts the big reveal off to the end, and at least it actually really does function as its own thing. Ignore the nudge-nudging about a movie that came out eight years ago and it's not that hard to see "10 Cloverfield Lane" for what it is: a crackerjack exercise not just in genre but genres, with exacting direction, three great performances and a genuine respect for audience patience, intelligence and willingness to be go with a story that drags you hither and thither.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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