3.5 stars (out of 4)
Check your nerves at the theater door. Take a deep breath while you still can. And then calmly apologize in advance to the person sitting next to you for jumping out of your seat and clutching a stray hand for dear life.
There. Now you’re ready to partake in some terrifying fun.
Producer J.J. Abrams is trumpeting his latest Bad Robot project as a sort-of sibling to 2008’s creepy found-footage hit Cloverfield. But this pic is more of a blood relative to the claustrophobic thrills and dark humor of the 1990 classic Misery. And no, you don’t have to be familiar with the mothership movie to fully understand — and appreciate — this sharp and tightly wound winner.
The scares start before a single line of dialogue is uttered. With ominous music taunting us in the background, we see a twenty-something girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flitting around in an empty apartment. She walks out in a huff, leaving a diamond ring on a table. While driving on a desolate highway, her boyfriend, Ben, calls her on the iPhone and pleads forgiveness. (Check the closing credits to ID the A-lister who supplies Ben's voice). And then … boom.
This was a highly clandestine production for a reason: Part of the beauty of the film is that you don’t know what the heck is going on, and you don’t want to know. So plot details shall be kept to a minimum.
These are just the necessary basics:
— The girl is named Michelle. She wakes up and finds herself handcuffed to a bed in a cellar, which is part of a large, tricked-out underground bunker. It looks strikingly similar to Desmond's hatch in Lost. (Hey, let's pretend that Abrams, a Lost cocreator, is giving a subtle wink to all the show's fans!). Anyway, Michelle wants out.
— Her gruff caretaker, Howard (John Goodman), is a self-professed survivalist. He explains to Michelle that she can’t leave because the country is “under attack,” and the air is polluted. She needs to stay in the enclosed space for one year. Minimum.
— Another person, a good-natured dude named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), is also staying on the premises. He claims he is there of his own free will.
As the suspense heightens, the dynamic between the three characters in these ultraconfining surroundings constantly changes. At any given moment, Howard could either be a trustworthy father figure or a deeply disturbed kook. He adores his '60s ditties on the jukebox, which is endearing. He has a thing for Pretty in Pink too. Duckie! Blane! How sinister can he be? Then again, he also has a shotgun and a short-fused temper. Never mind. He’s a lunatic. Right?
What an inspired choice to cast Goodman as the man in charge. Though not a traditional leading man, the underrated actor has crafted a career by playing a relatable everyman. He has been a good guy (Roseanne, Argo), a loveable goof (The Flinstones), a bully (Revenge of the Nerds) and honed his comic skills hosting Saturday Night Live roughly 33 times. There’s a comfort in seeing him on screen, even when he’s biting off the ear of a goon in The Big Lebowski. We want to believe he’s being honest with Michelle when he laments the loss of his daughter. But only a fool would underestimate him. And Winstead — in a breakthrough performance — does not play scrappy, quick-thinking Michelle as a fool.
(Winstead's mental strength is a key cog in the triangle. Nobody wants to root for an idiotic damsel-in-distress).
It bears repeating: Don’t try to outguess the narrative. And, for the love of Google, don’t scour the web for third-act spoilers. Just exult in knowing that an old-fashioned scary movie can still make you squirm, laugh and gasp for air.
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