Not content to helm the highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), JJ Abrams is back just three months after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as the producer behind 10 Cloverfield Lane, the latest feature-length film to emerge from Abrams’ seemingly inexhaustible “mystery box” (a skeptic or cynic would call it more an branding/marketing technique than the source of cutting-edge, innovative storytelling). Three parts locked-room, psychological suspense-thriller and one part old-school Twilight Zone, 10 Cloverfield Lane may not be greater than the sum of its parts, but those parts, alone and collectively, make for an exceedingly effective, sometimes even enthralling moviegoing experience, a combination of first-time director Dan Trachtenberg’s taut, efficient direction, Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash) suspenseful, twist- and turn-heavy screenplay, a trio of superlative performances headlined by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a literal “final girl” (except she’s the “first girl” and a woman, not a girl) facing off against the patriarchal order represented by John Goodman’s potentially unhinged, Alex Jones-inspired conspiracy theorist/doomsday prepper.
When we first meet Winstead’s character, Michelle, she has no idea what awaits her on a dark, winding road just a few hours later. She’s packing, escaping a failed romantic relationship, headed for parts unknown. The why behind the failure of her relationship don’t matter, only that it’s the impetus for her seemingly rushed decision to leave her life behind. She’s so caught up in her own personal drama that she barely feels, let alone respond to, what seems like a minor earthquake. Later, she barely hears (if she hears at all) a radio broadcast mentioning widespread power outages, cause or causes unknown. It almost doesn’t matter, especially after she’s sideswiped by a pick-up truck, forced off the road, and into a nearby ditch. When she awakens, with her knee in a brace and fresh blood still on her face, she’s not in a hospital. She’s lying on a mattress, surrounded by cinderblock, windowless walls, below ground in a bunker/shelter owned by the seemingly benevolent Howard (Goodman).
Howard claims he saved Michelle, not only from her injuries incurred in the car accident, but from a much graver, existential threat. He claims an attack, biological, chemical, or even nuclear, attackers unknown (the Russians, South/North Koreans, and Martians all receive passing mention), has all but wiped out all life, human and otherwise, leaving his well-stocked, fortified underground bunker as the only safe, secure location to wait out the apocalypse, if, indeed, the apocalypse unfolded while Michelle recovered from her injuries. Justly suspicious of Howard’s intentions and motives, Michelle relents somewhat when the third inhabitant of the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) claims he saw a red flash on the horizon before he did what an sensible person who personally knows a doomsday prepper with an underground bunker would do: He knocks on said prepper’s door until he’s given access. In Emmett’s case, he injured his shoulder “knocking” on the bunker’s door.
Michelle – and, by extension, the audience, since she’s our surrogate/stand-in – can’t completely shake off her suspicions. While Howard repeatedly warns Michelle that the air above has been contaminated, his constantly shifting stories, including one involving his long-missing daughter, suggest he’s not telling her the truth or only some of it. Howard’s occasional rages and rants don’t help, of course, since they suggest emotional and mental stability are absent or, at best, in short supply where Howard is concerned. Trachtenberg and his screenwriters smartly downplay hints of a burgeoning romance between Michelle and Emmett, instead keeping the focus on Michelle’s active agency and independence. She may be reactive as circumstance dictate, but she’s never passive, key to making Michelle a fully rounded, relatable character.
As Howard learns, Michelle is no “girl.” Deep in the throes of the patriarchal order, Howard can’t help but infantilize Michelle. He sees her as weak, in need of paternalistic protection, a glaring blindspot that contributes to his (possible) undoing as the initial conflict and distrust gives way to temporary cooperation and trust and back again. Michelle learns an important life lesson too. The apocalypse might come and go, doomsday preppers might be best suited to ride out the worst of the worst, but cohabitating with a doomsday prepper might be not be the best, long-term solution to surviving the apocalypse. Throughout Trachtenberg deftly segues between scenes of increasing tension and scenes of de-escalating tension, keeping the audience on knife’s edge as plot twists and turns begin to accumulate. Where 10 Cloverfield Lane ends and what relationship, if any, it has to Cloverfield, of course, won’t be spoiled here, nor should it be, but at best, it’s a distant cousin, a long-lost relative to its commercially successful predecessor, thankfully minus the once-fresh, now stale found footage gimmick that helped turn Cloverfield into a modest box-office hit.
Plot and premise (and spoilers) aside, 10 Cloverfield Lane benefits in a major way from its cast. Too often underused, not to mention under-appreciated, Winstead gives the kind of layered, subtle performance usually reserved for critically well received, little seen indie/arthouse dramas. Trachtenberg obviously agreed. Winstead receives the vast majority of close-ups in 10 Cloverfield Lane, obviating the need for over-energetic camera moves, quick cuts, or visual effects. A gifted, expressive performer like Winstead can elevate even mundane material into the realm of art (a slightly hyperbolic statement, but no less true) and she comes close to elevating 10 Cloverfield Lane beyond its genre trappings on more than one occasion. Goodman’s supporting turn as the survivalist Howard deserves mention too, as does Gallagher Jr.’s. Both fill out otherwise limited, underwritten roles with dimension and depth.