Drama/Thriller, 104 Minutes, 2016
This is said to be a sequel, of sorts, to 2008’s big budget found-footage, love-it-or-hate-it epic Cloverfield [IMDB]. If so, the connection is, to be generous, tenuous. The films are vastly different in tone, style and pacing and lack any obvious overlap. They are similar thematically, however. Both focus on small, personal stories occurring on the periphery of enormous, world-altering events.
The first followed a group of friends trying to stay out from underfoot as a massive creature attacked New York City. Some critics were turned off by its found-footage gimmick, a self-indulgence this sorta-sequel abandons. This entry begins in New Orleans as a woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead [IMDB]), packs to leave a presumably abusive relationship. Later, on a road in rural Louisiana, she suffers a brutal car accident and is knocked unconscious.
She awakens chained to the wall in a sparsely appointed room. She’s clearly received medical care and soon meets Howard (John Goodman [IMDB]), a paranoid survivalist who informs her that the United States has suffered an attack that’s left the air poisonous and everybody outside his shelter dead. Another survivor, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. [IMDB]), also lives in the shelter having begged his way in moments before the end.
It’s a bottle-movie with little fat to trim; a twisted, multi-layered mystery. Delving deeper is difficult without spoilers. Suffice to say, Michelle has trouble believing the story that she’s been told. Howard is clearly tightly wound, quick to anger and heavily invested in his narrative. Emmett understands how tenacious his position is, but lacks the sophistication to improve it.
The movie builds exquisite tension around these three. Casting is pivotal when dealing with such a small group and extreme care was clearly taken. Winstead’s wide-eyed, porcelain features support her excellent performance. She easily charms the audience. Gallagher brings a refreshing, ham-fistedness to his performance. Emmett is naive and provincial, but far from stupid.
Howard is the pivot on which all things rest and Goodman’s performance is unbalanced in all the right places. He has significantly more depth than the two younger survivors and his motivations are correspondingly much less clear. Goodman captures the odd blend of absolute certainty and intense confusion that seems to epitomize the survivalist subculture. When you’ve spent your life preparing for the worst, what exactly do you do when it happens?
The ending is little more than self-indulgent. It changes the tone so significantly that it threatens to dilute the more engaging material that preceded it. The script, like so many others, passes by a clear, powerful ending image in favor of extending a story that doesn’t benefit from extension.
This is a relatively minor complaint. The performances and tension of the main story are more than worth the cost of admission. If the ending ultimately lost track of the original story in favor of a few moments of world building, we can forgive it.