In case you’ve forgotten, 2008’s Cloverfield was essentially Handycam Godzilla; a so-so found-footage monster movie that got a little more attention than it strictly deserved thanks largely to a memorable marketing campaign. 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel to that movie. J. J. Abrams, who produced both, has referred to it as a “blood relative”, because of course he has, but what he’s really saying in his own twee, self-satisfied way, is that this is a completely separate feature in terms of style and tone that he meddled with post-production.
Originally filmed under the title The Cellar and then later given the hush-hush codename of Valencia, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense, genuinely excellent chamber piece that didn’t need the brand association to get by, and, frankly, would probably have been better without it. The title alone is going to p**s people off, in part because it sets up expectations for a direct continuation of whatever was happening in Cloverfield, which apparently some people still want and which, again, this absolutely is not, but also because it reeks so potently of the trademark Abrams/Bad Robot middlebrow meta-promotion that it’s just irritating on its own terms. None of this is a particularly big deal, especially given that the interference only really manifests in the final fifteen-or-so minutes, but it’s enough of a distraction to have garnered a fair amount of backlash and could potentially hamper your enjoyment of the movie.
It certainly hampered mine, at least for a while, as I spent most of the first act patiently waiting for a giant monster to poke its snout through one of the set walls. It doesn’t. I know that’s technically a spoiler, but let’s be adults here. This is a movie that builds old-fashioned suspense on old-fashioned foundations, and when engaged with on those terms it’s one of the better dramatic experiences of 2016. So, let’s not sully this with cutesy insider references. There’s enough to unpack as it is.
Anyway. The movie opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly fleeing her fiancé (voiced over the phone, briefly, by Bradley Cooper). She leaves her ring and her house keys on the table, jumps in her car and drives away. The radio croaks ominous reports of power outages. Bear McCreary’s eerie score here makes the packing of bags feel like outright horror. You wonder what you’re missing. And then Michelle crashes. The title card flickers onscreen between the first impact and the next spinning collision. These opening scenes are (intentionally, it seems) reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. They want you to wonder where Norman Bates might be.
He’s underground, where Michelle awakes to find herself chained to the wall of a sparse little cell. Her captor is Howard (John Goodman), and the room she’s in just one of many in a liveable subterranean bunker. But wait. This weird rural survivalist explains to Michelle that he hasn’t abducted her at all. Shortly after her accident, something happened. He’s not sure what. It could have been ISIS or the Russians or the Martians, and that he treats all three as equally likely says a lot about Howard’s personality. Either way, the air outside is contaminated. It won’t be breathable for a year, maybe two. They’re stuck down here, Howard, Michelle, and a neighbouring contractor named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), who barged his way inside when he saw the sky flash red with God-knows-what. The fallout shelter has all the amenities and food for several years. They’re going to be here a while.
The movie establishes all this with brutal economy. The director is Dan Trachtenberg, who’s best-known for a promising Portal fan-film and here, in his debut feature, keeps the setting and story deliberately-composed. He’s working from a script by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken that was touched-up by Damien Chezelle, who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning Whiplash. Like that movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane is fundamentally a story about abuse. As well as being exactly the kind of guy you’d imagine would prepare himself for an impending apocalypse, Howard quickly begins to exhibit the classic signs and tactics of a domestic abuser. He’s jealous, volatile and controlling. He constantly reiterates how deserving he is of gratitude and respect, while establishing arbitrary rules and boundaries that, when broken, send him veering off into bouts of aggression. He’s genuinely baffled at the idea that anyone would find him unpleasant, or laugh at a joke he doesn’t find funny, or look at him with suspicion when he explains his far-fetched conspiracy theories about mutant worms. Goodman plays all this with chilling charisma. It’s a brilliantly observed character that feels as lived-in and familiar as it does dangerously unpredictable.
But the movie quickly establishes that for all his flagrant weirdness, Howard is probably right. There really is something out there that potentially represents an even greater threat to Michelle and Emmet than Howard himself, and the first two acts are a slow-burning masterclass in functionally building suspense, ensuring every titbit of information serves as either foreshadowing or some kind of payoff. The audience is gradually introduced to the geography of the bunker through scenes of unsettling pseudo-domesticity, as the trio settle in to what they believe is going to be a long-term existence. This lengthy middle portion is characterised mainly by a macabre sense of humour, which doesn’t really show up on either side of it, and the drama is maintained by Michelle’s inability to reconcile the overwhelming evidence of Howard’s assertions with her instinctual mistrust and dislike of him.
Michelle works as a character in large part because she’s never presented as a flaky damsel in distress. From the moment she wakes up, she’s established as being resourceful, tough, and, unusually for this genre, thoroughly logical. It’s easy to root for someone who makes the decisions you feel you would in a similar situation, and it’s rare I can say that – even more so about a movie which traps a good-looking woman in a room with a creepy dude. She has an arc, too, one that makes complete sense in the given context, and that even manages to find a satisfying conclusion during a third act which deviates wildly from the established tone.
I’m not going to talk about it. I’d like to, but all the half-truths and reveals which lead to that divisive conclusion are so absurdly well-executed that I can’t bring myself to undermine any of them by revealing too much. You’ll have to take my word for the fact that whatever you think of the ending (and believe me, you will think something), everything leading up to it – from the acting to the writing to the plotting and pacing – is more than worth the price of admission. This is a slick, taut thriller that is thoroughly deserving of your attention – whatever the title might be.