In this time when pre-release spoilers run rampant on the Internet and movies
can never be kept completely secretive during their path to the screen, somehow
creator-producer Drew Goddard and co-producer J.J. Abrams have achieved this
near-impossible feat twice—first with director Matt Reeves' 2008 found-footage
monster thriller "Cloverfield,"
and again eight years later with Dan Trachtenberg's riveting companion piece "10
Cloverfield Lane." Less than two months prior to the latter's March 2016
opening, virtually no one aside from the people involved in its making knew it
existed. When the exceptionally intriguing but tastefully shady trailer
premiered, it caught everyone unaware and rightfully sent "Cloverfield" fans
into an anticipatory whirlwind. Indeed, it is still possible to surprise
viewers, and "10 Cloverfield Lane" does just that throughout its airtight
103-minute running time.
On the run from relationship woes, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hit by
a truck while driving through rural Louisiana. When she comes to, she finds
herself chained up in a barren
room. Gradually, more details come to light, though Michelle has no way of
knowing how legit they are. A middle-aged farmer, Howard (John Goodman), has
brought her to the fully stocked underground bunker he has built on his
property. His conscientious forward thinking, he claims, has saved both of their
lives—and that of a third occupant, local acquaintance Emmett (John Gallagher
Jr.)—following the fallout from a deadly airborne contagion. Howard is adamant
no one else above ground has survived, but Michelle isn't quite sure if his
words are truthful or the dishonest ravings of a mentally unhinged lunatic set
on holding her and Emmett hostage.
A chamber suspense piece with real armrest-grabbing power, "10 Cloverfield Lane"
is the brainchild of talented first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and
screenwriters Josh Campbell & Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (2014's
"Whiplash"). A spiritual cousin to "Cloverfield" that stands on its own while
also complementing that earlier picture, the film is stylistically completely
different (goodbye, first-person lensing and shaky cam) while crisscrossing
subgenres and averting expectations in savvy, creative ways. Is it a bubbling
captivity potboiler of physical and psychological warfare? A spooky
post-apocalyptic horror picture? A nervy, blackly funny domestic satire, one
where characters keep up appearances—they eat dinner together, play board games,
do puzzles, listen to golden oldies on the jukebox (including Bobby James and
the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now")—while sharing living quarters with
someone as scary as whatever exists in the outside world? It is all of these
things, and then much more. Part of the fun is in not knowing what to expect
next, and the other half is being taken on a ride by filmmakers who know exactly
what they are doing.
The cast primarily consists of just three actors, and there isn't a weak link
among them. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2013's "The Spectacular Now") is the
gripping focal point of every scene as Michelle; the narrative may not be told
from her literal point-of-view as she holds a camera, but viewers remain by her
side, vicariously experiencing, for better or worse, what she does. The
transformation Michelle goes through, from a young woman who feels as if she
runs away from everything in life to someone finding the strength and
empowerment to face her troubles head-on, is captured with a perceptive,
affirming touch. Winstead is emotionally available and sympathetic in the kind
of three-dimensional role most actors would dream of receiving.
John Gallagher Jr. (2010's "Jonah Hex") holds a calming, ingratiating spirit as
the only person with whom Michelle is able to confide as she begins to wonder
how many dirty, harrowing secrets Howard is keeping from them. John Goodman is
sensational as Howard, his character a fascinating original whom Emmett
pointedly describes as having "a black belt in conspiracy theories." Goodman
plays every side to perfection—his loneliness and vulnerability, his
fist-clenching short fuse, his simmering paranoia, and his manipulative,
potentially violent sociopathy. When Michelle and Howard face off, as they must,
it is electrifying.
For a motion picture about which audiences have been kept mischievously in the
dark, "10 Cloverfield Lane" has plenty of unforeseen tricks up its sleeve. It is
crucial, especially, that the third act not be given away. Suffice it to say,
the "edge-of-your-seat" expression was made for climaxes like this, hitting
crescendos of awe, terror and giddy excitement. Meanwhile, composer Bear
McCreary's uncommonly tense music score adds to the intimidation of the story
and cinematographer Jeff Cutter brings an indelible, foreboding balance to each
frame. Told from a new angle, in a new setting, in an imaginative new form, "10
Cloverfield Lane" deep-sixes the citywide carnage of "Cloverfield,"
for a zeroed-in narrative where newfound spatial intimacy takes away none of the
immediacy and dread which so well typified its predecessor.