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10 Cloverfield Lane: The appeal of low-budget thrillers

10 Cloverfield Lane poses so much potential for future engagement in low-budget filmmaking as moviegoers now are craving the humble slices lying there beside sensational large-scale events.

Two months before its release, 10 Cloverfield Lane, without a sound, handed out the first trailer, which tagged along with the theatrical version of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldier of Bengazhi. This is kind of familiar in terms of promotion if you notice the key person and the studio behind it: respectively, J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. Very low-key, yet it still managed to stir up a fair amount of expectation among movie enthusiasts, particularly because the aspiring director/producer Abrams hinted that it would have a “spiritual connection” to Cloverfield, the groundbreaking installment of old-fashioned Hollywood thriller/disaster sub-genre back in 2008.

J.J. Abrams at a promotional event for 10 Cloverfield Lane

Coming to you as the directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane starts out at an unhurried pace and features a minor proportion of dialogues and interactions, in order to establish later plotline by the one routine of storytelling: visual. Viewers are introduced to our heroine of the tale: a young lady named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After walking out on her fiancée due to an insufficiently explained motivation (which actually happens for a reason at this point), Michelle is soon caught up in a bizarre “traffic accident” in Louisiana, and wakes up later only to find herself injured and chained to a wall, in what seems to be an underground bunker. The bulky middle-aged man who holds her captive, Howard (John Goodman) reveals that he is the one lending her a hand after she is hurt before bringing her back there for medical treatment. Adding to the unnerving semblance, there is a third person down there with them: Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a bearded young man that Howard allows to stay because he has assisted him in the construction of this bunker.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the leading role

Turns out, according to Howard, civilization as they know it has been compromised. He somehow believes the population is suffering from chemical wars or even nuclear attacks, and with his experience and vigilance from the over-a-decade time serving in the army, he has been preparing for an event like this by building a hideout that offers more than basic survival kits and fortification from outside attacks. Though, for a short while, the film has us fooled for the illusion of safety and sympathy between fellow humans in time of disastrous incidents, along with the course, it seems everything is not that comfortable. Or is it?

John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. in one of the most intense sequences throughout the movie

There are only 3 significant characters in the movie (plus one who brings the most impactful “moment of truth” to Michelle) and apart from John Gallagher Jr, the other two is just beyond brilliant. Hollywood sweetheart Mary Elizabeth Winstead once again proves that she has been outgrowing the image of teen boys’ crush Gwen Grayson/Royal Pain in Disney’s Sky High back then, with more matured acting range through movies like Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Smashed or recent summer newcomer TV show on the comedy scene – Braindead. She really shows us the weight of Michelle’s troubled past, which cast a pesky shadow over the course of her life until now, then progresses from an abducted victim shivering every time she hears Howard’s uproarious rebukes to a somewhat freedom fighter who shrewdly utilizes various resources around to find a way out of this menacing setup.

John Goodman as the abusive, troubled Howard

On the other hand, John Goodman’s subtle (and at times explosive) performance blows everyone’s mind, as we meet a brutal control freak who is obsessed with pulling every string there is. The atmosphere around him is constantly reshaped: showing kindness and generosity when he sees submission, but getting outrageous over a slight signal of rebellion. Every gesture from Howard while struggling to converse, every action he makes a fuss out of to insist upon Michelle and Emmett’s gratitude, every single clue that the duo stumble on,… they all zero in on his complex mental issues, as well as his sinful, shady past that could never be brought to light, or maybe Trachtenberg planned for it not to. Why?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallager Jr.

Because this is Michelle’s story.

Only Michelle should get a significant character arc with proper development. Her quest from start to finish: leaving her fiancée, undergoing the oppression and restraint in that claustrophobic living quarter, getting cozy, sharing things she regrets the most with Emmett and the final attempt to break free only to find the harsh truth above, all ultimately serve the purpose of conveying 10 Cloverfield Lane’s profound subtext: domestic abuse and its consequences. This is an ever bulging and controversial problem. The offender’s position should never be as crucially attended as the victim’s pain and suffering. How are they going to live from now on? That’s the question left unanswered for the audience.

This is a fresh take on the thriller genre in the time of superheroes tentpoles and Disney-adaptation epics that leave our eye sockets choked full of CGIs. Dan Trachtenberg, in his first big-screen feature, succeeded in telling a story of blockbuster concept through limited settings. This is not unfamiliar in Hollywood, but also never quite got the attention it deserves. It poses so much potential for future engagement in low-budget filmmaking as moviegoers now are craving the humble slices lying there beside sensational large-scale events. Those flicks care not to compete with the hustle-and-bustle of giant robots and laser-blasting pantheons, but still are magnetic and fascinating in their own unique ways, taken up a notch by a claustrophobic atmosphere, visceral actings, and meticulous execution.

Director Dan Trachtenberg on set

In conclusion, 10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely more than just worth watching, even until third viewing still can you discover some previously overlooked hints that foreshadow later incidents and add up to an emotional and thrilling experience, thus proves that this kind of approach could very well be the future of cinema.