Here’s a tense and tight little thriller that works so well on so many levels that it’s kind of a shame it’s called 10 Cloverfield Lane. Don’t get me wrong, as a marketing tactic it’s pretty brilliant. It’s also a clever way for JJ Abrams and his Bad Robot team to continue building their sneak attack franchise. However, the movie would be far better served without such an overt and obvious connection to the Cloverfield series—most of all, because even calling the movie that kind of spoils the finale for everyone. There was an opportunity here for 10 Cloverfield Lane to be a total surprise sequel that didn’t reveal itself into the final twist. I can’t help but speculate that was always the plan until the studio got nervous and demanded some sort of overt reference to Cloverfield as a sales tool. It’s a bummer, but that’s just the reality of how franchise properties work. Thankfully, it doesn’t ruin an intense little genre effort but does rob it of a little power.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as a young woman fleeing from a relationship that gets caught in a sudden car accident and then wakes up on a ratty mattress in an eerie cellar. Her captor is John Goodman, although he doesn’t consider or present himself as a captor. You see, Winstead’s room is only part of an underground bomb shelter of sorts that Goodman built in anticipation of the apocalypse. He claims it hit. The air outside is fatal, and Winstead is invited to look at some scarred pigs outside to see what might happen if they decide to leave. Complicating an already complicated situation is the presence of John Gallagher Jr., a contractor who helped build the shelter and then fought his way in after seeing a blinding light. The trio now finds themselves in an uneasy relationship trying to make a home in a dusty underground domicile filled with board games, canned food, couches, and VHS tapes. They try to make it a home, even if no one can quite pinpoint Goodman’s true motivations.
That’s a pretty tense set up for a claustrophobic thriller and one that the filmmakers milk for all of its visceral and psychological suspense potential. The screenplay by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle (who knows a thing or two about domineering authority figures) and Josh Cambell/Matthew Stuecken always stays a step or three ahead of the audience. Sympathies are constantly tested, and situations have a tendency to shift from bad to worse on a dime. First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg shoots it all with a Hitchcockian sense of audience manipulation and carefully controlled visual storytelling. Viewers only see what they are supposed to and generally, it comes from Winstead’s very confused and panicked perspective. The tone shifts freely enough that there are even long comedic sequences with genuine laughs, yet never once is the escalating sense of suspense alleviated. It’s a movie designed to keep you questioning and curious right up until the climax.
With this essentially being a three-headed character study, the actors own the movie and are all excellent. John Gallagher Jr. has the most thankless generic nice guy role, but manages to subtly suggest hints of mystery within a character primarily present to facilitate dialogue scenes outside of the two leads. Goodman uses his size to tower over the other characters and impose a constant sense of menace. He’s always one wrong move away from snapping and manages to seem sinister even in his most comforting scenes. He might be right about the apocalypse, but he’s too untrustworthy for anyone to be positive and creates a palpable sense of dread whenever he’s on screen in one of the finest performances of his long career. It’s really Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s movie and she kills it. She plays a character that is constantly calculating and questioning her surroundings while rarely speaking what’s on her mind. Yet, she constantly communicates every thought to the audience silently. There isn’t a ‘damsel in distress’ moment in her performance that could have been defined by that cliché in a lesser actress’ hands. Beyond all of the subtle character work, Winstead also shows off the ass-kicking skills that could turn her into an action star (if she has any interest).
It’s tough to really get into the nitty gritty of what makes 10 Cloverfield Lane such an impressive genre effort without getting into spoiler territory—the title already gives away too much. This very carefully constructed claustrophobic slice of paranoia is filled with dynamite twists layered with meaning. It plays like a fantastic episode of The Twilight Zone and harkens back to a type of genre storytelling that’s been gone for too long. Truth be told, the weakest passage of the film is the finale that finally clears up the title. It’s a great dramatic beat to conclude this closed narrative that’s then stretched into a fairly awkwardly shot and overextended special effects explosion that is decent, but nowhere near as effective as what came before.
That’s a shame, but also gently nudges along whatever the hell it is that Abrams has planned for the larger Cloverfield franchise in interesting ways. It was pretty tough to shrink the scale of Cloverfield down further than that handicam street-level monster movie, but somehow this sort-of-sequel found a way. It’s hard to imagine what the next chapter will entail without raising the stakes considerably, but who knows? At the moment, this is turning into a loosely connected anthology series of sorts featuring unconventional genre twists sold on a brand name. That’s a pretty interesting way for Abrams and his Bad Robot team to launch the careers of young filmmakers without drowning them in blockbuster convention. Hopefully the future plans for this series are even better, but not bigger.