Directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
2016. Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
John Gallagher Jr.
We meet Michelle (Winstead) as she is leaving her boyfriend Ben (a heard, but unseen Bradley Cooper). After packing up, she gets in her car and drives for hours with no intention on returning. As she reaches for her cell phone to answer a call from Ben, she apparently loses control of her vehicle which runs off the road and flips several times. She wakes up with a makeshift brace on her knee, an IV in her arm and handcuffed to the wall in some underground bunker. A man named Howard (Goodman) informs her he saved her life and that she can't leave because there is nowhere to go due to "an attack" that has taken place leaving the air outside contaminated. Understandably, she doubts his story, but due to events occurring during her escape attempt, comes to believe him. Also in the bunker is Emmett (Gallagher Jr.), who corroborates Howard's story about a massive attack of some sort taking place. The three get along, however, the various stories Howard tells don't seem to be adding up.
I've long been a fan of the visual and visceral treats offered up by slasher flicks. Something about the ridiculousness of over the top kill scenes keeps me coming back for more. That said, even I can admit the best horror is not that which grosses us out, but that which disturb us while cranking up the narrative tension. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that manages to be both disturbing and tense. What the film isn't telling us for much of its runtime is what drives. We know there is some truth to what Howard says. We just don't know how much. It's clear we have to get outside the walls of the bunker to find out for ourselves, but can our protagonist afford to leave. After all, where do you go when you're in the middle of nowhere and the air around you is toxic to the point of being fatal?
A film with only three actors has to rely on them to sell the premise. Our cast is more than up to the task. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives what may be a career best performance as Michelle. The character is a strong one. To paraphrase Howard, she's got some fight in her. She has plenty of fight, actually. This is what gets us on her side. She's not some helpless woman willingly accepting victimhood. She is a spirited creature kept aware by her inquisitive nature. John Gallagher Jr. is also really good, albeit in a different way. His Emmett is more accepting of his fate. He might even be seen as dimwitted, but still, he isn't stupid. If Michelle initiates the plot, Emmett keeps it going through his realizations. It's a range-proving role for Gallagher, as it is the polar opposite of the role he plays in Hush. There, he was a sadistic predator. Here, he's a nice guy looking to make the best of a bad situation. This makes him an excellent conduit for the audience to view the film through. He's a step slower than us, but we realize we need him. More importantly, Michelle needs him.
Like most movies, 10 Cloverfield Lane is only as good as its villain. John Goodman gives us a terrific one in Howard. The writing helps him out by making him a man empowered by the knowledge that he was right all along. A lifelong conspiracy theorist, he feels vindicated and authoritative when all he's predicted has come to pass. No longer is he the weird guy with the bunker. He is the one who was prepared. "Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come," he tells Michelle. Indeed, it is no stretch to say Howard views himself as an equivalent to Noah. Not only is helping to save the world by simply remaining alive, he is attempting to wipe away the sins of past because those he's sinned against and those who sinned against him are no longer around. Through his controlling ways and his lauding of the fact it's his shelter keeping the three of them alive, he is not unlike a cult leader with delusions of messianic grandeur. I'm not yet sure I can say it's the best work of Goodman's career, but it's certainly the creepiest he's ever been.
While the film unfolds, many of us will keep the film's title floating around the back of our mind. All the talk of an attack of some sort ensures it's never far enough back for us to forget about. After all, the whole of 2008's Cloverfield is consumed with an attack by a giant, mysterious monster. Is this the attack Howard continuously references? This is assuming there was an attack at all. That we must question this places 10 Cloverfield Lane in a somewhat unique space in cinematic history. It never really tells us if it is actually a sequel to the other film in its franchise or if it just shares a common word in its title. The question carries a final act which could've easily been far less tense than the rest of the film had been to that point. In a lesser film, or at least one not in some way connected to Cloverfield, this entire portion of the movie would not exist. It provides a logical conclusion and even a stopping point, yet continues well past it. In most movies this would unnecessarily lengthen the runtime. Here, it works beautifully. True, it seems to become an entirely different picture at this point, but our transition from one to the next is smooth. It's a wonderful trick turned by first-time-feature director Dan Trachtenberg. He has made an impressive debut, to put it mildly. By the film's actual end, we know something has happened, but still aren't sure how closely related the events of one film are to the other. The mystery is maintained through the ending. We're properly set up for another installment, anticipatory and anxious.