Director: Dan Trachtenberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 103 minutes
What’s in a name? A lot, if referencing the hype machine that was fired up when the 10 Cloverfield Lane teaser hit theaters out of the blue just a couple of short months ago. Is this a direct sequel to the 2008 found footage monster movie? Are those people in the bunker taking refuge from the beast? Once again, producer J.J. Abrams’ mystery-box method of promotion piqued interest.
Questions about connections – direct or indirect, to Cloverfield are answered in (at?) 10 Cloverfield Lane, but this film works so well on its own terms that its place in the big picture cinematic “Cloververse” isn’t the juiciest development. With twists comprised mostly of logical discoveries and tonal shifts attributed to character traits and motivations driven by excellent performances, this thriller expertly turns (and then loosens and turns, etc.) the screws. Its build to a batty final act is fantastic and the finale is over-the-top fun without feeling like tacked-on sensationalism.
The set-up is a measured dose of Hitchcock. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rushes from her apartment, apparently running from a bad relationship, leaving an engagement ring behind and listening to frantic calls from her boyfriend as she drives off. All set to Bear McCreary’s score that’s like a high octane take on Bernard Herman.
On a dark, lonely two-lane highway Michelle’s car is flipped into a ditch (a scary crash intercut with the opening credits). She awakens in an underground bunker built by former Navy man turned doomsday prepper Howard (John Goodman), who claims there’s been some sort of an attack – chemical, nuclear, or something else – that’s left the air outside toxic. He pulled her from her car, brought her to safety, and to survive they’ll need to stay underground for a year or two before the air is breathable. The third person in the fallout shelter is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who corroborates Henry’s story of an attack, and says he sought refuge.
The confined space is used to great effect from the moment Michelle wakes up, with close-ups of an IV drip, her wrapped, injured leg locked to a pipe, and her cell phone and purse sitting tantalizingly just out of reach. It’s disorienting and urges us to get our bearings, seeing things through Michelle’s eyes and identifying with her even though we know very little about her. Howard’s introduced as a menacing figure, stomping into Michelle’s quarters and providing very little information between labored breaths. He’s seems to be more than a bit “off.”
The script from Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle reveals character information organically (with the possible exception of a bonding exchange between Michelle and Emmett that’s a bit on the nose). This allows Winstead and Goodman to shine by providing nuance instead of being forced to spout expositional dialogue as mysteries are presented and worked through.
These two performances are truly great. Goodman is terrifying in a few outbursts and unquestionably overbearing, though he walks it back to the level of harmless weirdo or wacky uncle at points when we’re meant to empathize. And hey, he’s got a jukebox full of catchy ‘60s tunes and a bitchin’ VHS collection (just be sure to put the movie back in the sleeve after you watch it), so maybe he’s not a complete monster.
Reasons are plentiful to mistrust and be scared of Howard, but there’s also plenty given to believe his theories are accurate and that his intentions are indeed noble. But then again, maybe they’re not. The shifts in how we perceive Howard and the seeds planted that suggest his psychosis and oddball charm make the punches from plot developments land so much harder here than they would in a lesser thriller that would rely on twists alone to carry the drama.
As the evolving heroine, Winstead is always emotionally on-point, from the initial fear of being in this cramped locale not knowing what’s going on, to her suspicions of Howard and the uncertainty of deciding if, when, and how to take action. She also bears a striking resemblance to Lizzy Caplan’s character from Cloverfield. Does that mean anything? I don’t know.
And it doesn’t matter. Neither do many of the questions that arose when the film was first announced. The mysteries presented within the confined context of 10 Cloverfield Lane are more than enough to satisfy, and are best discovered knowing as little as possible about where it all leads. With his debut feature director Dan Trachtenberg shows amazing touch in playing us like a fiddle, agreeably, as we alternately recoil and smile with glee on the roller coaster ride.