John Goodman is one of the great American actors and never gets enough credit. Somehow stately and understated, Goodman’s an unmistakable one-man show, whose baritone voice and generous build allow him to oscillate between gentle giant and hulkish beast — often settling for something in between.
That makes his particular talents hard to categorize. In some respect that’s a byproduct of his filmography, which encompasses both flashy blockbusters and elegant dramas. Even when he’s the best part of a movie, he rarely dominates it; he’s a familiar face in search of a vessel.
With “10 Cloverfield Lane,” however, Goodman found an ideal outlet for his talents. He’s the longest of Oscar long shots, but that’s plenty to justify examining exactly what he pulled off here, and why it speaks to a career that’s never quite wholly appreciated.
In this taut chamber drama that masquerade as sci-fi thriller until its explosive finale, Goodman plays a conspiracy theorist holed up in his bunker and anticipating the end of the world. It’s never quite clear if his character’s completely mad or facing a genuine threat, and that’s the brilliance of Goodman’s performance. His eyes darting wildly as he charges through the frame, he keeps you guessing at every turn. Until the abrupt arrival of CGI in the climax, Goodman gives “10 Cloverfield Lane” its only special effect, and he’s a marvel to behold.
The movie itself is just clever enough to hold attention throughout, a slick “Twilight Zone” episode expanded to feature-length. When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes after a car crash to find she’s locked inside the titular address, Goodman’s Howard explains that it’s unsafe outside and she must remain in his home for years. Before she can recover from this assessment, she’s joined by Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who provides her with a sounding board for theories about Howard’s motives. It’s clear from his first scenes that Howard’s an eccentric, but the extent of his insanity — and what it might take to unleash its extremes — remains the movie’s key source of tension.
Goodman sustains the undulating tone, attempting gentle dinner table conversations in one scene and expressing creepy affection toward Michelle in another, before going full-on maniac in the third act. Even then, however, his behavior is shrouded in ambiguity. Having lived in a cornfield for years while harboring delusions about the end of the world, Howard’s better prepared than anyone for the possibility that it could actually happen. Although “10 Cloverfield Lane” sticks with Michelle’s point of view, Howard injects the movie with constant mystery rooted not in unearthly forces but human character. In an election year riddled with fake news and accusations of clueless people living in bubbles, Goodman epitomizes the rampant fears of an especially paranoid moment.
Too often, it’s easy to take Goodman for granted as a pleasantly surprising side show. In “Patriot’s Day,” Peter Berg’s upcoming dramatization of the investigation following the Boston marathon bombing, Goodman cuts a commanding figure as police commissioner Ed Davis, with a stern attitude that enhances the urgency of the authorities sizing up the situation. He gets no big scenes, but always looks like he’s on the brink of taking charge.
It’s a welcome reminder of when he actually did take charge, as the saving grace of Kevin Smith’s silly action-horror showdown “Red State.” When Goodman surfaces halfway through as the world-weary police officer tasked with taking down a church full of gun-wielding Jesus freaks, he becomes the uniting force in an unwieldy genre hybrid. (I saw the film at a screening with Goodman in attendance, where an audience member exclaimed, “That was like watching my dad kick ass!”)
Goodman’s always been this way. He’s been a commanding, at times shockingly funny, cinematic presence ever since he emerged from the dirt with a victory cry in the early moments of 1987’s “Raising Arizona.” Even campy bits like the ill-fated exterminator in 1990’s “Arachnaphobia” transcended expectations.
But while he solidified his image across American households on “Roseanne” between 1988 and 1997, Goodman’s greatest role to date landed one year after that show’s conclusion. As the foul-mouthed chatterbox Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski,” Goodman transformed pure schtick — the crude, rambling bowling pal of pothead everyman The Dude — into a slapstick masterclass. When Walter mutters that now-iconic putdown to the pair’s soft-spoken teammate (“Shut the fuck up, Donny” may be one of the best punchlines ever), he might seem like a bully. But Walter, who inexplicably thinks of himself as a religious Jew, lives in his own world.
He has his pensive moments, too, and it’s here that Goodman makes it clear that Walter truly believes his own mania. “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude,” he sighs at one point. “At least it’s an ethos.” Viewed in retrospect, Walter’s such an inspired creation because only Goodman can bring him to life — and so it goes with this expert performer, time and again.
And yet, perhaps because of the winding path of his roles, Goodman’s never landed a single Oscar nomination. At this stage of the game, the narrative would suggest his chances of ending that oversight are slim. But Goodman doesn’t need an Oscar to keep his career momentum going. He’s already got at least a half dozen projects in the can, from “Kong: Skull Island” to Rupert Wyatt’s “Captive State.” Moviegoers may take Goodman for granted, but that hasn’t slowed him down, and we’re all the better for it.