It’s certainly understandable why anyone would be skeptical of 10 Cloverfield Lane. With an ad campaign that is purposely vague about the film’s premise and a title that calls back to a disappointing monster flick that used similar marketing tactics, one could be forgiven for outright dismissing this one as a film studio's cynical attempt to use that same trick twice. The two films don't even seem related by subject matter or characters. However, this is one of those rare instances where the complete opaqueness of the trailer is entirely justified, because as a thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t just deliver, it delivers excellence.
After a car crash knocks her off the road, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a stonewalled, windowless room, chained to the wall on a thin mattress. Her host is the imposing figure of Howard (John Goodman), a seemingly emotionally unstable man who built this bomb shelter in case of foreign or extraterrestrial attack. This is exactly what he claims has happened, and he sees himself as Michelle’s savior from the radioactive air outside. Along with Emmet (John Gallagher), a fellow survivor who pushed his way into Howard’s bunker, Michelle must try to discover whether the world outside truly has succumbed to apocalyptic circumstances or if Howard is just using that as an excuse to keep her against her will.
The majority of the film takes place in the confined quarters of the bunker, so it is largely dependent on character drama to drive forward the plot, and that is the film’s greatest strength. Winstead displays a tough, yet vulnerable, determinism against a desperate situation and Gallagher does a great job of playing her more optimistic and naïve foil. The most credit must go to John Goodman, though, who uses his massive figure to exude a quiet menace. You easily get the impression that even if the world has gone to shit, Howard is severely unhinged and likely was long before the bombs dropped, which makes him a dangerous roommate on the best of days. Considering Goodman’s proclivity for supporting character roles, it can be easy to forget just how good of an actor he is, as he dominates the stage with hat-drop emotional turns and subtle physical quirks that tell us much more about Howard than the dialogue ever could, all without slipping into scenery-chewing self-parody.
Equal kudos must be given to first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, who has an incredible talent for tension and suspense. He knows just when to draw out a scene to make the inevitable shock us, to twist the seemingly inevitable into new surprises, and to just surprise us entirely with new possibilities. The claustrophobic atmosphere is used to great effect, with distorted close-ups and a frantic score to keep you constantly tense and unprepared for the next heart-dropping beat. Surprisingly, the film even manages to work in a few laughs, though less because there are any funny jokes and more because Trachtenberg clearly knows how to milk an awkward moment where nervous laughter seems like the only appropriate response. This is a directorial talent to look out for, because this debut is stellar.
The one thing about this film that I can easily see become an object of contention is the third act. I won’t spoil it, but the tension is going to come between those who came to see a Cloverfield movie and those who came to see the film despite the Cloverfield moniker. Personally, I think the ending works, mainly as a thematic escalation of the gradually more insane twists the film keeps throwing at us right up until the very end, but your mileage may vary and I understand why. Truth be told, I didn’t expect to walk out of 10 Cloverfield Lane loving it, but that’s exactly what happened. Forget the stupid marketing; this is a worthy addition to the horror renaissance of recent years, and its found footage predecessor cannot tarnish that.