Brimming with edge-of-your-seat suspense, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a wonderfully effective throwback to classic nail-biters and a terrific expansion of the Cloverfield cinematic universe.
The film opens with a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) walking out on her boyfriend (the voice of Bradley Cooper) after a fight. As she drives away down an isolated country road, she hears a radio broadcast about mysterious blackouts across the southern coast of the United States and WHAM — her car is blindsided, and the movie intercuts its title card with chaotic footage of her accident in progress. Michelle wakes up in an underground bunker, where an intimidatingly large man named Howard (John Goodman) explains that he brought her there to save her life. He claims there’s been a mysterious attack on the surface that contaminated the air and killed everyone outside, meaning that the current occupants of the bunker — he, Michelle, and a guy named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.) — are the only people left alive. But when Michelle, who understandably doubts this explanation, questions who’s responsible for the attack, Howard says he suspects the Russians or — get this — maybe even the Martians as the culprits. As you might expect from a guy who spent years building an elaborate underground bunker in case of an apocalypse, Howard isn’t exactly stable: he’s socially awkward, has some severe daughter issues, and a nasty temper. So, confined to a relatively small area and with Howard always only steps away, Michelle makes plans to escape and discover the truth about what’s really going on.
I read the movie as an exploration of fatherhood; as much as fathers might try to protect their daughters by keeping them cooped up, eventually they’ll have to face the outside world. There’s a lot to dig into about Howard wanting and thinking he deserves respect and admiration for what he’s done, and him trying to recreate a family dynamic in these questionable circumstances. I can’t wait to go back and watch it again to dive further into this film’s themes.
Comparisons to Misery feel inevitable, but Goodman’s nuanced performance never gets as theatrical as Kathy Bates’ when she played a captor in that 1990 film. Goodman is next-level incredible here, playing a character unlike anything he’s ever done before. His physical size is certainly imposing, but he’s not just a one-note monster: he plays Howard almost as if he’s autistic, eyes constantly shifting around, and with the temperament of a wounded animal. We’re clearly meant to experience the movie through Michelle’s perspective, and since she’s a captive, we’re instantly distrustful of Howard, but he still manages to give the character enough humanity that, despite his actions, we eventually come to sympathize with him. Winstead has been doing great work for years, but this is one of her best roles, and certainly the one with the most potential for breakout success. She’s fantastic, giving Michelle strength and determination that makes her about as far from a damsel-in-distress as you can get. Gallagher, too, is always reliable for a solid performance, and though Emmet doesn’t have much to do, the actor brings a lot to the role anyway. He and Winstead both get satisfying, honest-to-God character arcs in this movie, too, which is often one of the first things to go out the window in today’s blockbuster movies.
First-time director Dan Trachtenberg does a terrific job shifting our allegiances throughout the story, slowly revealing more information that paints a fuller picture of who these characters are. He famously earned his shot at the big time directing Portal: No Escape, a fan film that went viral a few years ago, and this is a big step up from that and a hell of an impressive feature directorial debut. He works wonders with this film’s contained contained setting, expertly building and releasing tension as the film builds to its go-for-broke conclusion.
My first thought was that the single location would make it difficult to draw connections between this and the original Cloverfield, but without giving anything away, the jaw-dropping final act adds far more to the mythology than the 2008 film did. There are a couple of small connections that fans will be pleased with — a Kelvin gas station here, a Slusho! sign there — but I’ll save the discussion of the bigger connections for a more spoilery article later on. I feel like a majority of movies have a decent hook but often fail to stick the landing; 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the rare films that delivers an ending that lives up to its premise and left me desperately wanting to talk about it as soon as I left the theater.