10 Cloverfield Lane is a brilliant little suspense film: intense, well-acted, and satisfying. Given its namesake and the involvement of producer JJ Abrams, that satisfaction may not exactly jibe with expectations. The title does the film no favors: it is not a direct sequel to Cloverfield, and it completely jettisons the found footage conceit that helped give that film its raw terror. While director Dan Trachtenberg films with a more traditional style, there is a subjectivity to the story so that it still provokes a steady sense of unease. Trachtenberg quickly defines what type of film he has made, and addresses any potential dissatisfaction with steady, claustrophobic groove.
In reasons the audience cannot yet understand, Trachtenberg takes pity on them with the film’s first image. He starts with a quiet cityscape – serene, warm, and pleasant – and lingers on it more than he should. The camera pans inward, landing on an extreme close-up of a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She is rushing to leave, and after an image of her driving in the night, Trachtenberg keeps the action from Michelle’s perspective. There is an abrupt car accident, and she wakes in a dank, locked cell. John Goodman plays Howard, the strange man who saved her, and explains his plan is to keep her alive (she thinks he’s a pervert, and he never quite corrects her). Nonetheless, Michelle eventually leaves the cell, and realizes she is in Howard’s fallout shelter. He says there was an attack, possibly by aliens, and the contaminated air means she cannot leave. For how long? “One to two years,” he replies grimly.
The majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane takes places inside Howard’s bunker, with no natural light. Trachtenberg starts by keeping the camera on Winstead’s face, which veers between desperation, confusion, and steely resolve. The opening is slim on details, and when we finally understand more about the bunker, we have little comfort. There’s a third occupant, Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is a strange, goofy young man with a broken arm; he confirms some parts of Howard’s strange story.
We share Michelle’s gnawing curiosity, made even worse by Howard’s personality quirks. He veers between an awkward sense of decorum, and bouts of unchecked aggression. The script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle includes smart details that hint at Howard’s warped values. A suspenseful early scene builds on the little things, like the way Howard pronounces the word “table.” Goodman dominates the film, in more ways than one, turning his usual likability on its head.
If Cloverfield takes its inspiration from disaster films, then 10 Cloverfield Lane is more like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The film is already economical – there are only three important actors, plus a confined setting – and Trachtenberg has a penchant for humor as relief. He is responsible for Portal: No Escape, a short film based on the wildly popular eponymous video game, and it shares the same claustrophobia, irony, and devotion to logic.
Winstead does not play Michelle as a simple victim; she outsmarts Howard more than once, and it’s to her/Goodman’s credit that their battle of wills unfolds organically. The screenplay also doles out plot and character details laterally, so when we think the conflict will play out in one way, it upends our expectations entirely. Between the twists and jokes that come out of detailed human behavior, this film is delightful because we are never quite sure what to think, or how to feel.
This kind of film is more about buildup than payoff. Like Michelle, Trachtenberg steels the camera on the next task at hand: escape, mostly, but also dealing with the emotional implications of a large-scale disaster. There is an immediate urgency to 10 Cloverfield Lane, so that when we understand the full account of what happened – more or less – there is a temptation to ask “Is that all there is?” That kind of question is beside the point. 10 Cloverfield Lane has a bold climax, and it is involving not because of its surprises, but because it ties the action to character development. Michelle starts the film running away, with the camera representing her reduced worldview. She does not end up that way, and her path has more to do with The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street than the monsters that may (or may not) lurk in the sky.