Follows not one of its predecessor's footsteps, to great success. A high-intensity, streamlined, claustrophobic thriller.
10 Cloverfield Lane
First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg milks a simple, succulent premise for everything it’s worth in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a quasi-sequel to 2008’s found-footage urban thriller Cloverfield. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays our resourceful, sharp-minded hero, who, after a wicked car crash, wakes up trapped in a subterranean survival bunker with a lumbering, creepy captor (John Goodman) who claims the outside world has been reduced to a wartorn, uninhabitable wasteland. It’s a powder keg of a movie with an old-school approach to storytelling that’s interested not in philosophy or meaning, but simply in the events unfolding right in front of our eyes. It’s a story that asks what (the fuck) is happening rather than why things are happening, and that makes it less complicated and more streamlined than the typical, weighty, modern-day thriller.
The first two acts are equal parts mystery and suspense, with the finale bursting at the seams with surprises and edge-of-your-seat thrills and chills. The script, by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle and newcomers Matthew Stuecken and Josh Campbell, is a solid chamber mystery that doesn’t push any boundaries but is the perfect support system for Trachtenberg and the actors to make the movie special with what they each bring to the table. High tension runs throughout the movie’s runtime (not an easy feat), and that’s a product of the performances, visual style, and pulse-pounding orchestral score by Bear McCreary. It’s a harmonious popcorn-movie affair, with nary a weak link in sight.
In a tearful hurry, aspiring fashion designer Michelle packs some light bags and peels off in her car, fleeing from a failing relationship. Night falls, and, distracted by her beau lighting up her cell phone, she flies off the road. The shock of the crash is unnervingly concussive, images of a tumbling Winstead and roaring sounds of broken glass (mixed almost painfully loud) cut violently into the film’s opening credits. Immediately, we get a taste for Trachtenberg’s punchy, mischievous style.
Michelle (Winstead) wakes up in a windowless room that would feel more like a prison cell were it not for the life-supporting amenities wrapped around her right leg (a knee brace) and stuck in her left arm (a flowing IV). Suddenly, the heavy metal door clanks open and in walks Howard (Goodman, having so much fun being a total creep), a nutty survivalist who claims there’s been a disastrous attack above ground that’s wiped everyone and everything Michelle knows into oblivion. What’s worse, he informs her that the air outside has been rendered unbreathable. Bottom line: for the foreseeable future, Howard’s bunker is her world.
Howard says he found Michelle in the wreckage of her accident and took her to his shelter, saving her from most certain doom. But there’s no way this ex-Navy weirdo is telling the whole truth, right? Every sentence that comes out of his mouth is either off-putting or suspicious, and he even suggests that Martians could very well be behind the attacks. He might as well have “UNRELIABLE” tattooed across his massive belly (right underneath another tattoo that reads “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE!”).
Our instincts tell us that this guy is a full-on serial killer/rapist who’s lying about everything, but everything gets thrown off balance when Michelle discovers a third bunkmate, Emmitt (John Gallagher Jr.), who vouches for everything Howard says despite the grisly lout beating the shit out of him for knocking over a shelf full of food. The plot is almost solely driven by the questions that naturally arise from Howard’s deceitful air (What are his true motivations? Has the world really gone to hell like he says?), and in this respect Goodman works wonders with his performance. He’s terrifying alright, but there’s a sadness underneath the surface that gives him dimension and keeps us on our toes. Michelle’s mind always seems to be on the go, her eyes taking in the details of her environment, searching for a potential tool she can use to get her out of whatever pickle she’s in. It’s a thoughtful performance by Winstead, who makes sure Michelle is the farthest thing from a damsel in distress. The actors make their characters’ mental and emotional underpinnings as interesting as any explosion of violence or plot twist, resulting in a more humanistic, tender film than one might expect.
It’s difficult to convey just how intense 10 Cloverfield Lane gets without venturing into spoiler territory. (What’s interesting to note, however, is that Trachtenberg’s career really began to build traction after he released a short film based on the video game Portal; that game’s narrative has more than a few things in common with 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s, which I found intriguing.) The revelations and twists that pile on in the latter half are delightful, not so much because they work on the page, but rather because they arrive so perfectly, bathed in suspense and terror and wackiness and all the things you’d find in the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. If there’s a downside to the lingering questions being answered it’s that the answers we get pale in comparison to the air of mystery they smash apart.
Now, the elephant in the room: How, exactly, is 10 Cloverfield Lane tied to Cloverfield? The surprise won’t be revealed here (the project was overseen by the Mystery Man himself, JJ Abrams, after all), but what I will say is that most of the pleasures found in Trachtenberg’s film have nothing to do with the found-footage original, with which it has almost nothing in common. In fact, this movie is significantly better than its predecessor, so it’s probably best to leave any expectations the Cloverfield brand may conjure in your mind at the theater door.