Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.
In deference to the film’s highly secretive production and careful marketing campaign, let’s start with this: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a great little thriller that occasionally borders on brilliance. It’s tight, tense, funny and intelligent, and well worth the price of admission. If, from what you’ve seen, you think it’s your sort of thing, it almost certainly is.
And now for some actual narrative details…
Having left her fiance, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving across country when she gets into a bad car accident. Waking in a bare concrete room with her wounds tended to but her leg chained to the wall, she quite understandably assumes that she has been captured by Howard (John Goodman) for some terrible purpose. Howard, however, maintains that he has no such designs: he came across the unconscious Michelle when he was haring back to his remote farm after hearing about some kind of disaster on the US Southern Seaboard.
Howard, a doomsday prepper with a conspiracy theory fixation, characterises whatever happened as an “attack,” possibly by Russia, possibly by aliens (he’s that kind of nut). He and Michelle are in his bunker, along with a third survivor, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a local guy who helped Howard build his underground fortress. Howard tells Michelle that they will need to stay locked down for a year, maybe two, until it’s safe to emerge.
So the question is: is Howard telling the truth?
The basic idea of locking a handful of characters in a room and letting them bounce off each other is a simple one, but in execution its much more difficult. The balance of characters needs to be just right, along with the power dynamics, and if there’s a mystery, then your information control needs to be on point, revealing just the right amount of data at just the right moments. 10 Cloverfield Lane nails it for the most part. It can be a bit aggravating that the nature of whatever event has allegedly decimated the civilised world (or at least the US) is kept so vague, but it’s understandable – the time elapsed between the event and our characters being in lockdown is short and they have no radio or cell phone links to the world outside. All we have to go on are Howard’s theories, which he treats as fact or at least well-reasoned hypotheses, while Michelle and Emmett vacillate between dubious acceptance and outright disbelief.
Howard is easily the most interesting character, largely because it’s creepily fascinating to see avuncular old John Goodman as a threatening figure, and there are points here where he’s downright terrifying. It’s not a one-note thing, though – as we learn more about Howard, our perception of him changes. He’s presented to us as a paranoid man who is particular about his world and cleaves to certain old fashioned mores – at one point he chides Emmett for swearing at the dinner table – but he’s also shown as very capable, a former Navy man who lost contact with his daughter after a bad divorce and is now lonely and poorly socialised. For a while there the three make an odd kind of family unit, until we’re confronted with elements that are at odds with the ’50s-Americana image of family that Howard is trying to recreate.
Michelle is our point of view character, and Winstead excels in the role. No helpless wallflower, her first reaction when she wakes in what looks to her like a sex dungeon is to try to escape, attempting to stab Howard along the way. She’s an interesting character because she’s always questioning – acting on best assumptions and incorporating new evidence into her worldview. We don’t get a lot of background data – initially we just know she’s just walked out of a relationship, and we don’t get a whole lot more than that – but her intelligence and drive to figure out what’s what make her an easy point of identification.
Emmett, the third spoke on our little wheel here, is an amiable sort in Gallagher’s hands, and though at first he’s a subject of suspicion – what’s he doing here and what’s his relationship with Howard? – we come to know him as the kind of nice, not too bright guy who never amounted to much after high school. His function here is to give Michelle someone to interact with other than Howard, but Gallagher’s performance and some nice character shading elevate him.
When it’s firing on all cylinders, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like a really good Joe R. Lansdale story, with a well-demarcated set-up, abrupt tonal shifts, and plenty of idiosyncratic dialogue touches and setting details. No rule books are being rewritten here, but it’s an exceptionally crafted thriller. It’s also one worth going into cold. Spoiler warnings are generally for idiots, but this is one film where executive producer JJ Abrams’ “mystery box” approach is warranted; as the film progresses we get some very jarring revelations about what exactly is going on, and though knowing them won;t ruin the movie for you – good movies are un-ruinable – you’ll have a better time going in tabula rasa. In point of fact, the only real complaint happens late in the final act, so let’s just put a quick * here, and if you feel a pressing need to, you can read about it below. If not, get along to the cinema before someone less charitable blows the plot for you – this one’s a great ride.
*Okay, once Michelle gets out of the shelter and she – and we – understand the true nature of the catastrophe, roll credits. We don’t need any more action or suspense beats, and the sudden cut to black would have been a killer Twilight Zone-type punctuation mark on what is, up until that exact moment, a pretty flawless little thriller. I don’t dislike the last ten minutes of the film by any stretch, but I think the whole would have been made stronger by its excision.