When 10 Cloverfield Lane was hastily announced shortly before its release, the expectation was for J.J. Abrams and his crew for this film – director Dan Trachtenberg and writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle – to return to Cloverfield‘s giant monster roots, or to at least tie this one to the other when it became clear that we would not be getting another found-footage flick. Even the trailer, cleverly veiling the subject matter as a peaceful indie drama about people with beards playing board games while listening to a jukebox, left room for the kaiju angle. 10 Cloverfield Lane cements itself as story within the Cloverfield franchise, not a sequel per se but a continuation of a larger, somewhat connected idea – much like American Horror Story‘s soap operas playing with various horror tropes, so too does Cloverfield as a whole. And this one is, for the most part, a suspenseful yarn about a woman kidnapped by a man who tells her the end of the world has occurred outside their bunker.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays said kidnapped woman, Michelle, who is running from her past commitments to Ben when she’s sideswiped by a car. She wakes up in Howard’s (John Goodman) underground nuclear fallout shelter, quickly learning that he rescued her from her car accident but he’s also crazy in his own eccentricities, including holding a lot of the same beliefs as current survivalists. He’s also invited Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) into the club, albeit with reservations about how useful he is to their newfound community.
Trachtenberg’s direction is quite good, and 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s biggest contributions to this type of film – think a more sophisticated version of Lifetime’s wife-as-captive TV movies – is its subtle exploitation of viewer expectations. It’s the same sort of ideal that the film played up in its early trailers and its titular reference to Cloverfield, and Trachtenberg runs with those expectations only to dash them repeatedly.
First and foremost is the early characterization of Michelle as a victim; shackled to a bed in her undershirt and underwear, she’s the epitome of helpless, and fits directly into horror tropes about women succumbing to aggressors and doing so in their skivvies. But the screenplay is smart, and so too is 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s protagonist, quickly putting together a way to smoke out Howard while whittling a crutch into a shiv. Repeatedly, Michelle excels at design and survival, even more than Howard with his naval expertise, and 10 Cloverfield Lane effectively uses her crafty nature to design elaborate set pieces set in the bunker.
There’s also the continual flip-flopping of feelings within the shelter. It’s difficult to set an entire film in a small location, but Trachtenberg adds paranoia to every scene, even when it seems like Howard has their best interests in mind. 10 Cloverfield Lane is often a slow and plodding film, building its characterization with one-on-one encounters between the three residents, but these scenes take time to craft anxiety from seemingly unimportant conversations. Emmett and Michelle, first settling into their new life after experiencing a woman die outside of the fallout shelter’s doors, are confronted with a dilemma after they find out that the girl Howard keeps referring to as his daughter is actually a teenager who went missing in town; Howard is nice to them, except when he’s not, and then he’s really, really mean.
All three actors are at the top of their game, and they have to be to keep the tension alive. There’s a chemistry between Winstead and Gallagher – not romantic, but friendly – that reinforces their bond, and Goodman expertly slips into manic bipolar mannerisms. 10 Cloverfield Lane is peppered with legitimately uncomfortable scenes, forcing the viewer to constantly contemplate the truth. Is there really a nuclear holocaust up above, or is Howard just unstable? Or is Howard unstable, but also very aware of the toxic threat to humanity? The film has a lot of fun forcing the characters and the viewer to weigh the options between sticking with Howard and venturing out into the world, and it wisely refrains from commenting on either until the end.
[Spoilers begin here]
The conclusion adopts a kind of middle ground: it’s both. Howard is mental, but he’s also right about some sort of threat to the human race, and ultimately Michelle finds out that she’s basically stumbled into the worst living hell imaginable. Not only was she trapped underground with an insane guy, she also has to deal with the aftermath of said existential threat when she makes it out of the shelter. Trachtenberg does manage to tie Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane together, if only inexplicitly; the monster of Cloverfield isn’t far off from what actually appears in this film.
The resulting 100 minutes are a ridiculously entertaining combination of two worlds, and it feels like Campbell, Stuecken, and Chazelle threw quite a bit of things together hoping that they stick. That’s not always a bad method, and in 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s case, the pieces come together for a smart and often surprising work that also owes a lot of credit to its ensemble. If this is the start of a Cloverfield franchise, count me invested.