Since it came out in 2008, there’s been chatter about a follow up to found footage creature feature Cloverfield. Just a few months back, the notoriously mysterious Bad Robot dropped a surprise trailer for something called 10 Cloverfield Lane (up to that point it had been developing under the working title Valencia), which appeared to be, at least tangentially, related to the earlier film. To be honest, it’s really a sequel in name only. While Cloverfield is big and bombastic—and, in my opinion, wildly overrated—10 Cloverfield Lane is a small, taut, claustrophobic psychological thriller with a serious Twilight Zone vibe. If it wasn’t for the title, there’s very little to connect it to its predecessor, but that doesn’t matter because it’s a damn good time.
Eschewing the jittery, handheld found footage aesthetic and trappings that make Cloverfield annoying to watch, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a simple, contained story. There are only three characters—though a couple actors do show up on occasion and get a line or two—and a single setting. It’s like a tense stage production, like a chamber drama defined by the interaction between the three players.
The fewer details you know going into 10 Cloverfield Lane, the better. A young woman named Michelle (MaryElizabeth Winstead), running away from a bad relationship, gets into a car accident. When she wakes up, she finds herself in the underground doomsday bunker of Howard (John Goodman), along with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). A paranoid survivalist, Howard informs her that there’s been an “attack”—he doesn’t know if it’s the Russians, aliens, our own government, or what—and the air is no longer safe outside.
That’s the set up. What follows is Michelle’s attempt to discern what is true and what is bullshit, and, like her, 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the audience guessing and wondering what is real. The best part of the sharp, economical script from Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, is how it sets up your expectations, only to subsequently subvert them in clever fashion. Just when you think you know what is going on, what the true nature of this reality is, they pull the carpet out from under you and force a shift of perspective.
Nothing else embodies this facet of 10 Cloverfield Lane quite like John Goodman’s brilliant turn as Howard. I’m of the camp that John Goodman is a goddamned national treasure, and he’s rarely been better than he is here. Howard is more than just a survivalist, more than just a regretful husband, more than maybe a straight up paranoid psycho. He can be violent and vicious, but also tender and endearing. The fact that you can go from despising him to legitimately sympathizing with him is down to Goodman’s layered, textured study of a conflicted man, full of contradictions, raging one moment, sweet the next, and with more than a few deep dark secrets.
Throughout her career, Mary Elizabeth Winstead has shown herself time and again to be a gifted actress, and that is again on display in 10 Cloverfield Lane. As Michelle wakes up for the first time in the bunker, chained to a pipe, her fear is palpable, visceral. No mere damsel in distress or another cinematic woman in captivity, a trap she easily could have fallen into, she’s clever, brave, and resourceful as she attempts to determine the reality of her situation. At the same time, she’s also frail and afraid, full of doubts and misgivings, and she forms the charismatic, magnetic pole around which the rest of the movie spins.
John Gallagher Jr. plays Emmett almost like a man-child, or the personification of a big, dopey puppy. But that surface, too, belies an underlying pain, remorse, and disappointment. He’s never been more than 40 miles form home, sabotaging his chances to explore the world. Nothing in 10 Cloverfield Lane would work without these three performances, and the actors are up to the challenge, delivering the natural, unaffected dialogue that still manages to be full of subtext and additional tiers of meaning.
First time feature helmer Dan Trachtenberg has primarily worked in commercials up to this point, and he delivers deceptively simple direction. Set almost entirely in the windowless bunker, he uses depth of frame, unusual camera angles, and enough quirky details to make 10 Cloverfield Lane interesting to look at and avoids showing the settings the same way twice. There’s very little wasted space visually or structurally, and from the opening scene—a ingeniously simple and elegant way to impart a great deal of information—the tension ratchets up, aided by Bear McCreary’s throbbing, at times overwrought, score, and a tight, meticulous pace. The only knock is the finale, which feels a bit tacked on, but after what comes before, this is a minor quibble indeed.
Including Cloverfield in the name sets up certain expectations, expectations that the film, as it does throughout, subverts and undermines. You don’t wind up where you initially think, and things never take the expected turn. 10 Cloverfield Lane is about monsters, both literal and metaphorical. Not a true sequel, the link is more thematic in nature, and the two films exist in concert, augmenting one another. And whatever the title may be, and whatever it means, 10 Cloverfield Lane is wonderfully tense, engrossing thriller that’s smart, playful, and kept me rapt until the end. [Grade: A]