The big “mystery” of 10 Cloverfield Lane is far more indebted to marketing than to filmmaking, and while I’ll be careful as always not to spoil anything, know that the so-called twist and its connection to the (terrific) film with which it shares its name are the least interesting parts of the movie. This is a simple story, one that has little to do with monsters or science fiction, and that story is taut and wrenching enough to do all the heavy lifting. 10 Cloverfield Lane eventually provides the whiz-bang you come into the film expecting, but the story at its heart is so powerful and so commanding that it makes such a coda feel irrelevant. After what the first 90 minutes put us through, everything else is going to seem extraneous—and a lot less scary.
10 Cloverfield Lane features a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who, after a car accident, finds herself trapped in an underground bunker with two men: a conspiracy theorist named Howard (John Goodman), and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the man who helped him construct the shelter and ran in to escape some unknown catastrophe. We don’t know what happened outside, but Howard says the air is unbreathable and thinks it’s either Russians or aliens who have attacked us; Michelle doesn’t necessarily believe him, but a failed escape attempt persuades her that the bunker isn’t the least safe place to hide out. So they hang out together down there, as Howard becomes increasingly unstable and Michelle grows more and more suspicious. But then again: What’s going on outside? Is Howard crazy? Or is he the only sane person left?
The first 90 minutes are essentially an expertly constructed stage play about three people going a little bit mad with boredom, paranoia, and the occasional bout of brain-melting terror. Emmett is a more passive presence, a kind-hearted but somewhat simple-minded guy who bounces back and forth between the primal forces that are Howard and Michelle. Howard is unstable but may well be keeping everyone alive, and much of the film’s urgency comes from Michelle, established from the very beginning as an active, forceful survivor, frantically trying to understand the situation she’s in, and whether she can get out of it—or whether she even wants to. The movie gives her a series of puzzles to solve and boxes to fight her way out of, and we’re as addled as she is: What is happening outside? Why is she here exactly? First-time director Dan Trachtenberg shows an impressive ability to keep the tension fraught throughout, and by the time the secrets of the bunker are revealed, you, like Michelle, will be just about ready to jump out of your skin. For 90 minutes you’re trapped in this confined space, and Trachtenberg keeps tightening and tightening and tightening until you want to scream.
It helps that he has such compelling actors at the center. If you’re stuck in a room with two people, there are worse companions than Goodman and Winstead. Goodman has an ability to be jovial and quietly polite, almost honorable, while a rage and fear simmers just below the surface; he’s someone who you want to protect, be protected by … and be protected from. You feel for him even when you want to run away. But Winstead is the real gem here. She’s long been one of our more under-appreciated actors, one who has never quite garnered the breakthrough she deserves—her performance in forgotten indie Smashed was devastating in its clarity, and she was incredible as a mysterious, almost god-like cult leader in last year’s Faults—and I wonder, if this is a hit, whether it will finally make her into the household name she deserves to be. Michelle is palpably scared—reality is constantly shifting all around her—but Winstead gives her a deep reservoir of strength. Michelle isn’t merely resilient; she’s far too in control for that. Michelle has to face down just about every peril you can imagine, and she’s more than up for all of them: She’s a survivor, a warrior, a fighter. It’s a fierce, powerful performance, and it would be worth seeing the movie just for that.
And then we have the ending. I am going to be as careful as I can here, but considering 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that draws considerable power from its surprises and mysteries, forge forward with caution nonetheless. Suffice it to say, there does, in fact, end up being a connection to the original Cloverfield that sends the film spinning off once again in a new direction. Your mileage for this twist, such as it is, may vary. I was so commanded by Winstead and Goodman and the story they were telling down in the bunker that I found the more familiar foofaraw a little bit of a letdown and maybe even unnecessary. I understand that the “mystery box” of J.J. Abrams is a whole genre of moviemaking and marketing itself, and that the movie might not exist, at least in its current form, if it didn’t find a way to justify the Cloverfield in the title. But it’s still irrelevant to the story they’re telling here, and an awkward fit. The horrors of that bunker, in the context of the film, far outweigh anything that could be waiting for them outside. Sometimes, what you see, what is right in front of you, is plenty terrifying enough.
Looking for more movie recommendations? Check out the latest episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast.