J.J. Abrams loves his mystery boxes, and the marketing campaign around 10 Cloverfield Lane is so darn mystery box-y: a movie seemingly made in secret, a release scheduled just two months after the first trailer, a title that suggests a continuation of Matt Reeves’ 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield.
So what’s in the box?
Let’s get this out of the way: 10 Cloverfield Lane is NOT a sequel to Cloverfield in any way, shape, or form.
But that’s not a bad thing.
In terms of the movie’s bait-and-switch marketing, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a little like Halloween III for millennials, and I mean that in the best possible way.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Rather than a Cloverfield sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a taut thriller spun out of a Twilight Zone conceit. In fact, it’s a bit unfortnate that it carries the name Cloverfield and was billed as a spiritual sequel or blood relative to the 2008 film. I can foresee a lot of moviegoers being upset given the expectations they had going in, but really, 10 Cloverfield Lane deserves to be taken on its own terms. Sure, the movie will make more money thanks to the Cloverfield name, though it’s a bit of a disservice to its content, which stands on its own as a strong feature film debut by director Dan Trachtenberg, and a great vehicle for its three stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher, Jr.
There’s something a little Hitchcockian about the opening of 10 Cloverfield Lane, though that’s thanks in large part to Bear McCreary’s score, which has plenty of echoes of Bernard Hermann. Michelle (Winstead) is a woman driving away from her past who’s involved in a horrible car accident. When she comes to, she’s chained up in an underground survival bunker that belongs to a man named Howard (Goodman). They’re joined by an injured guy named Emmet (Gallagher), who claims to have run to the bunker for safety just as something unspeakable was happening above ground.
The tension of 10 Cloverfield Lane stems from Michelle’s uncertainty about this whole situation; the movie’s set-up is a mystery box from which she’s trying to escape. We’re similarly left trying to figure out who Emmet and Howard really are and what their motives might be.
Trachtenberg stages the unfolding drama through claustrophobic angles, carefully doling out sinister hints, red herrings, and brief moments of levity. It keeps the audience guessing what’s to come and reassessing what’s come before. There’s the question of what’s happened to the world (if anything), and whether or not the potential danger above ground is better than staying below. Howard’s got a military background (or does he?) and claims the air’s contaminated (or is it?), and that they may have to stay in his bunker for a year or two before it’s safe to go out again.
As an actor, Goodman’s always been able to switch between kind and sinister with ease. His roles in Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski come to mind. Howard’s made of mood swings, vacillating between good-hearted and unhinged. As he shows Michelle around the bunker, he calmly notes that the dinner table is a family heirloom, which means they have to use coasters and placemats at all times. Later, a calculated little touch of the fingers between Michelle and Emmet throws Howard into a rage, causing him to slam his fist on the table. Unreal domesticity has its own special kind of dread.
Kathy Bates in Misery might be the best unit of comparison for Howard, with a good dose of Michael Shannon in Take Shelter for added flavor, but Goodman makes the role his own. Casting him makes perfect sense–who else could simultaneously play loving father and creepy uncle?
Howard is so imposing, and Goodman could run away with the film (he only sort of does), so it’s a good thing he has a strong counterpoint in Michelle. Winstead proves herself a more than capable as the film’s hero. Her immediate instinct is escape, and as soon as she’s in the bunker, she demonstrates her knack for craftiness and improvisation. She’s a fighter, and maybe a lesser movie would paint her as a victim or a mere captor for most of the film’s runtime. Instead we get someone strong from the start, and who is much more resourceful than she gives herself credit for.
She’s got layers still untapped, and there are plenty of twists as Michelle figures out what’s going on in this mystery box. For Michelle, like so much about 10 Cloverfield Lane, there’s a lot under the surface that’s thrilling to discover.