Box Office Democracy: 10 Cloverfield Lane

I am not prepared to be this afraid of John Goodman.

I don’t remember a time in my life before the Roseanne show. It was a staple growing up, even if I didn’t start watching it regularly until the last few seasons. John Goodman is a lovable funnyman, and no amount of playing shady characters in Coen Brothers movies was ever going to shake me of that conviction. I was not prepared for the sheer mesmerizing terror that was Goodman’s performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a role I never would have expected for him but one that he embodies so totally and perfectly that pushes everything to another level. This is the kind of performance that should win awards but never will because every award-giving body has decided to become self-parody at this point and only send home statues for ludicrous acting clichés.

There’s such a pervasive feeling of menace coming off of Goodman in this film and it is honestly incredible. He spends 80% of the time playing Howard as a quiet, almost nervous, man and so his violent outbursts feel so much bigger because of the contrast. There’s also something to be said for the way the sets are laid out and the film is shot, it makes his physical presence feel so much bigger, like a tiger in a subway tunnel a perpetual threat with no way around it. Howard ebbs and flows from genial host to quiet threat to barely contained rage to completely uncontrolled like some kind of inscrutable tide on an alien planet. 10 Cloverfield Lane would be tense even reading the screenplay, but the way Goodman dominates every frame he’s in turns everything up even higher and makes for some unbelievable tension.

I don’t want to underrate John Gallagher Jr’s contribution to this film (he does fine work and has a devastating monologue) but Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the other half of this film. She plays opposite this dominating presence and holds her own. Where Howard is imposing dangerous force, Michelle is calculating and clever. She doesn’t always know what’s going on but she’s always looking for the next thing, the way out, she never lets herself get too complacent. The two feel like equals in an asymmetrical game of chess, but so too does Winstead feel like the equal of Goodman, and that is the highest praise I can give an actor this week.

It’s hard to praise anything else about the movie because it all just seems to serve these performances. It’s well shot, but it isn’t particularly dynamic or new feeling. The script is a fine effort and has enough levels that I was arguing about character motivations on the car ride home, but there isn’t that much that happens. It has the kind of score that seemingly every remotely scary movie has these days saved by a couple great needle drops on the soundtrack. It’s a sign of good filmmaking that these things fade in to the background, there’s more craft in appearing to do nothing than in being as flashy as possible.

The billion-dollar question for Bad Robot and Paramount here is “Does this make Cloverfield in to a credible anthology horror series?” and the answer seems to be a solid maybe. I’ve seen so many social media posts this weekend comparing the twist ending in 10 Cloverfield Lane to The Twilight Zone, and while that’s not giving the former enough credit and grossly oversimplifying the latter it would need to be the model. If they’re all going to be as compelling as 10 Cloverfield Lane, I would happily watch a movie under this umbrella every few years. If they’re going to be more like the original I’m dramatically less interested and there’s the problem; I do not trust the people at Bad Robot to make enough good movies in a row without a prominent franchise to prop them up. I hope they can prove me wrong.