In the mid to late 2010’s, actress Chloë Grace Moretz – who blew up after the career-making role of Hit Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass – was beginning to experience a decline as she starred in a sequence of unsuccessful YA films such as the weak If I Stay in 2014 and the downright terrible The 5th Wave in 2016, and in that very year she announced a radical wipe-up of her future projects, dropping out of all of them and restarting from a clean slate.
Whatever it is that she did in that brief period of time, it’s been working wonders for her, because the first result of Moretz’s shake up when she returned was 2018’s LGBTQ indie drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post, followed by a supporting role in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, where she displayed a new, never-before-seen layer of her acting skills. Between those two movies and Neil Jordan’s Greta (co-starring Isabelle Huppert, a film that I haven’t seen yet), Moretz seems to have left her mainstream YA days behind and is now in pursue of much more interesting, much more mature auteur projects, following the steps of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart before her.
Shadow in the Cloud comes as an interesting marriage between the actress’ pursue of indie auteur cinema and the genre roots that made her a star in the first place, with her finding a home in what is likely to be the best starring effort of her career.
Shadow in the Cloud is both simple and bonkers at the same time; it has a very straightforward plot in the best 80’s horror film fashion, but still it features quite a handful of effective twists and turns that make this kind of a spoiler-heavy movie. To sum it up, it revolves around pilot Maude Garrett (Moretz) during World War II who boards a B-17 aircraft in order to transport a top-secret package; however, she and her male flight companions encounter some sort of an evil presence in the plane. The rest of the plot is strictly need-to-know and right now you don’t, as Shadow is best experienced blind.
The film is written and directed by newcomer Roseanne Liang, who sees this as an opportunity to land in genre filmmaking and goes all in, as I was immediately swiped in by her writing and idiosyncratic directing style. Liang runs as far away as possible from the beaten war movie and period pieces stylistic tropes, approaching the film like a good old B horror movie first and foremost, throwing in some eerie vibrant red/green science fiction-esque neon lighting in the aesthetics accompanied by an eargasmic John Carpenter-inspired synth original score.
Right off the bat, Shadow in the Cloud subverts style expectations and feels so refreshingly new for its kind, but that’s only preparation for how the film’s about to subvert the perception of its main character and the plot itself.
Liang gives a masterclass in perspective here. The camera never leaves Garrett’s side, and did I say the movie is set in a plane? Well half the film is set inside a turret chamber where our protagonist is stuck, and we’re stuck there with her. Liang enforces this hugely claustrophobic aura throughout the film, as the very narrow set of a… turret ball comprises the camera framing and only barely allows for Moretz to move. All the other characters appear mostly as voices in her comms, and the writer/director ingeniously develops every single one of them through fantastic dialogue and dynamics that give each one their unique personality.
The film also approaches feminist themes head-on as sexist discourse is organically fleshed out by the pure contextualization of the story; a woman boards a flight composed of male soldiers in World War II? Things are gonna be said and most of them not in pleasant ways, and Liang tackles that aspect with brilliant honesty that’s sure to strike a nerve in the most insecure male audience members. As per the filmmaker herself, each of the men in Shadow in the Cloud represent one aspect of misogyny, and how they work off each other and off Garrett’s character as the story unfolds is nothing short of masterful writing.
The film is, however, not a “death to men!” radicalist shout, as it cleverly frames misogyny as something that hurts men as well, and gives these characters a fair chance to grow. The employing of sexism as a genuine threat in the film is severely well done; it’s decisions made by nothing more than sexist reasons that constantly make Garrett’s character vulnerable to the horrors of that evil presence that haunts her and everyone else – that thing itself being the film’s ultimate manifestation of misogyny and the trauma of abuse which our protagonist is trying to overcome. In a #MeToo era, this specific film tackling such themes in such a way is especially cathartic considering that an old, first draft of the project had been written by Max Landis – who was removed from this and all of his upcoming projects after a multitude of accusations of sexual abuse against him came to light. It’s only fitting that Roseanne Liang, an up-and-coming female filmmaker, picked up Shadow in the Cloud and transformed it into a feminist anthem against misogyny where abuse is portrayed as a monstrous thing that needs to be eradicated.
If Liang’s impressive direction and writing make one end of this film’s power, Chloë Grace Moretz’s performance makes the other. As I’ve mentioned before, the camera never EVER leaves her side and a lot of the time we’re stuck with her in a bubble, so there’s an extra responsibility on the lead actress’ shoulders to single-handedly carry a large part of the movie giving that much of the horror and the adrenaline of this limited POV low-budget picture is channeled mostly through her acting, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t deliver. Chloë gives the best performance of her career in here and showcases how much more mature and layered of an actress she’s become, as she navigates through a diverse range of emotions and facets of our leading character with seemingly no effort at all.
This entire movie wouldn’t work with any less than a stellar performance by its lead, but Chloë goes up and beyond, elevating it to a higher level. That, combined with Liang’s phenomenal writing of Maude Garrett’s character, compose a truly iconic horror protagonist in what should be an emblematic role for Moretz.
Through-and-through the movie is just plain fun the whole time. It’s got a slow-burn kind of feeling at first, but it’s never really slow as new things are constantly happening in meticulously calculated beats – it’s such a well-realized, organic and perfectly paced progression that I can’t imagine this film having any deleted scenes at all -, and Liang builds momentum surgically up until it goes off in an exhilarating third act.
The way the director manages to channel a high event movie kind of gravitas through an intimate-POV direction to adequate the project’s budgetary limitations is remarkable, as she manages to save the biggest money shots for the 3rd act and at the same time still provide a super thrilling experience during the first two. The little CGI it has is actually very good, though the overall setting being so practical makes it a tad bit jarring when the film goes for one green screen sequence – the effect itself is not bad per se, it’s just noticeable in comparison to the rest of the story’s setting, but still the sequence itself is breathtaking and that issue remains very minimal. The aforementioned glorious synth score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper complements the film’s B vibes to such a marvelous extent, and it’s a sin that no announcement for a soundtrack album has been made yet.
The year’s only barely started, and Shadow in the Cloud is already one of my favorite genre movies that I’ve discovered recently. It’s fun, it’s emotionally resonant, it’s smart, it’s wholly unique and it’s, most of all, fresh. Roseanne Liang states her business and I for one can’t wait for whatever else she does next, while Chloë Moretz peaks with a performance that puts her back in the A-game for good. This is a must-see for genre film lovers, and for anyone who’s seeking something different to have a blast with in the midst of so many mainstream blockbusters. The film is out on VOD and playing in select theaters in the United States – if you do go out, stay safe and follow all preventive guidelines, but if you can’t? Just pop it up at home, make some popcorn and enjoy the ride.
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