A couple weeks ago I reviewed that movie ROOM and even though it was a world class best picture nominee type of movie I said it should have DTV sequels like the similarly locationally limited indie CUBE did about a decade back. It could just be another story about another room that people are stuck in. Well, little did I know that they’d do something like that but it would be released theatrically and it would be a J.J. Abrams (JOY RIDE) production, not called ROOM2 or ROOM: REDEMPTION but 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.
That title may make you think it’s gonna feature Cloverfield, the popular lasagna swilling, Monday-hating, Nermal, Odie and Jon abusing asshole giant monster character from Matt Reeves’s Abrams production CLOVERFIELD, but it’s not. It’s also not done in found footage style, instead it’s modeled after the look of a professional movie. It would’ve been cool if there was a part where T.J. Miller runs by with a camcorder, but I think the title is just a coincidence. It’s kinda like how Rob Cohen directed DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY, DRAGONHEART and THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, but those aren’t necessarily a trilogy in my opinion.
So no, this one is more like ROOM, but with a different lady in a different room with a different skylight and a different idea about the world outside. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) plays Michelle, who in a silent prologue is seen abandoning her husband or fiancee (we never see him, but his telephone voice is Bradley Cooper [THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN]). Then she gets in a car accident out in the boonies and wakes up in a strange room with an I.V. drip and a leg brace. This doesn’t look like a hospital though, mainly because she’s on a mattress on the floor, and the door is like a vault, and also she’s shackled to a pipe, and she doesn’t even have a call button in case she needs a nurse to help her go to the bathroom.
What the shit is going on? Better ask Howard (John Goodman, DEATH SENTENCE), the weirdo who brings her food, says he saved her life and is frustratingly unhelpful about explaining. He may or may not be a total sweetheart who accidentally comes across like a creepo when you don’t know the whole story.
When he lets her out of the room it turns out she’s in his survivalist bunker. There’s also a storage closet full of canned food and a living room and some other stuff. It’s pretty well decorated and there’s a jukebox and a fine collection of movies on DVD and “VHS cassette,” he explains. There’s a younger guy there named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr., JONAH HEX), who’s also injured, but says he’s there by choice. Howard claims – and Emmett agrees – that there has been some kind of attack, chemical or nuclear, that means the air outside of the bunker will kill them almost instantly. But Howard mentions The Russians and even The Martians when he tells Michelle about it, so she takes it with a grain of salt, you could say.
This is a tense thriller, and some of the suspense is based on what information you don’t know or aren’t sure about, so beware of the spoilers. Michelle doesn’t know if Howard is lying to her, or if he’s just crazy, or what. Whatever it is he’s a creepy dude keeping them locked in and constantly demanding their gratitude and other uncomfortable shit. At worst he’s a psychotic kidnapper, at best he’s a terrible roommate.
Director Dan Trachtenberg creates several very effective sequences involving secret motives, chases and fights. He also finds some interesting visual details to help convey the story. I like the way a shot of Michelle’s neatly painted fingernails gripping the steering wheel in the opening is reflected in later shots as her nails become increasingly chipped.
Michelle herself is not gonna be worn down like that. The closest she ever comes to being passive is knowing when to tell a dangerous man what he wants to hear while biding her time to execute a plan. She’s very resourceful, too. She has an especially admirable knack for APOLLO-13ing found objects into tools, weapons and survival gear.
I hope I’m not speaking out of turn in saying that we, America, might have a crush on Winstead and her talents. Of course she can pull off cartoon blue-haired dream girl in the SCOTT PILGRIM one, but in my opinion she never got enough credit for her harrowing performance as an alcoholic in SMASHED, or even her tough scientist survivor in THE (unwanted) THING (premaquel). Here she reminds us that she’s Lucy McClane because she wears a white tank top for most of the movie and she’s barefoot and climbing through an air duct.
Winstead and the script really sell Michelle as a woman with the mental and physical resilience to climb out of any hole. That includes the literal one she’s in and the figurative ones she’ll still be in when she reaches the surface.
SPOILER THIS PARAGRAPH ABOUT WHAT IS GOING ON IN THIS MOVIE DO NOT READ OR SKIM THIS PARAGRAPH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. In the end it turns out John Goodman’s character actually died of a heart attack a while back and this was just a short story written by Roseanne. Or am I confusing it with the last season of Roseanne? Come to think of it it turns out there was an alien attack, and what we have here is ROOM vs. WAR OF THE WORLDS. The influence of Spielberg’s alien invasion tale is impossible to miss, but I’m not against it. Michelle survived rooming with that nut from BARTON FINK, why not take on an inexplicable space ship and attack worm? And before I leave the spoiler area let me ask you about her choice to accept the call at the end: does she consider stitching and then killing Howard to be her medical and combat experience?
It does end on a there-could-be-a-sequel-to-this type note, but to be honest that is not an adventure I feel the need to see. It doesn’t seem like a mythology we need to explore further. But it’s a fun one-timer.
Abrams is no stranger to Twilight Zone type stories that take place in limited locations. At least according to something I read somewhere, I think it said there was an episode of his show Felicity that was done in the style of The Twilight Zone and took place all inside a box or something. I mean who knows, really? But though Abrams is the name brand on this thing, he’s just the producer. Director Trachtenberg (key grip, PHANTASM OBLIVION) is known for the short video game fan film PORTAL: NO ESCAPE, which has kind of a similar set up, and this is his feature directing debut. The story is by Josh Campbell (assistant editor, BLADE II) & Matthew Stuecken (associate producer, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA), screenplay by those two and Damien Chazelle (writer of GRAND PIANO, writer/director of WHIPLASH).
I actually heard someone in the lobby complaining about the title being 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, that it was misleading, and she didn’t seem mad but I think she was pretty disappointed by the expectations it set up. And I have to agree, this is a MAJOR screwup on an otherwise fine little thriller. Because wouldn’t the actual house be 10 Cloverfield Lane, and then the bunker would be Suite B or something?
Get your shit together, Hollywood.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.