10 Cloverfield Lane (2015) was a stealth surprise when it came out of nowhere in early 2016. The surprise was that producer J.J. Abrams kept the production under wraps until weeks before its release, when enigmatic banner ads and trailers suddenly appeared on the web. With Abrams as the producer and Cloverfield in the title, it was surely a sequel to the 2008 film, itself a surprise low budget hit that suggested a massive scope just outside of the frame. But how did this claustrophobic psychodrama fit into the narrative of the original monster movie / found footage drama?
I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises, which are deftly played throughout the film. 10 Cloverfield Lane is as circumscribed as Cloverfield was expansive, set almost entirely in a locked underground bunker during what may be the end of the world. That’s what the gruff, unnerving Howard (John Goodman) tells Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) when she wakes chained to a concrete wall in a locked basement room. He rescued her from a car wreck on a lonely highway, he says, and saved her life by getting her underground before the attacks began.
What attacks? Gas, atomic bombs, alien invasion, whatever, the end of the world is nigh and this possibly crazy survivalist is her only hope for survival. The slow-witted handyman Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a barely-tolerated third tenant camping out on a cot in the pantry, confirms as much. Something is happening out there and it’s bad. The question they confront: is it worse inside?
It’s a mix of high concept premise and old school thriller and director Dan Trachtenberg makes it all work nicely in his feature debut. In these close quarters it doesn’t take much to set off Howard, who has control issues and a fantasy of a cozy family life under his strict rules. The tension only builds as Michelle starts to unravel the stories the Howard has told her. Winstead is great as the practical, capable Michelle, who begins the film running from commitment and ends up having to commit completely to a plan she can only hope will be borne out by the conclusions drawn from the meager clues at her disposal. Think of it as a different kind of locked room mystery. It’s Goodman, however, who dominates and sells the film. We tend to forget how intimidating and terrifying he can be (see his demonic side in Barton Fink). 10 Cloverfield Lane is reminder of the power of his presence and his ability to turn a slow burn into an inferno of rage under a bearish pose of bullying civility. And don’t worry, the film doesn’t fail its premise in the final act, which adds another dimension to the survival thriller.
10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t transcend its origins but it certainly fulfills it promises. Taut, teasing, and clever, it delivers an old fashioned tight-quarters thriller with style and keeps audiences on edge to the end.
Trivia note: one of the screenwriters is Damien Chazelle, whose Oscar-winning musical La La Land was released the same year.
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