When Cloverfield opened in 2008, it hooked audiences with its shroud of secrecy and an ultimately very compelling reinvention of the “giant monster movie”—not to mention it finally made the found footage gimmick a scary proposition. Now eight years later, the film has a “spiritual sequel” in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a movie that shares almost no similarities in tone, style, or footage finding with its predecessor.
Indeed, Cloverfield Lane is from top-to-bottom its own beast entirely, which is just one of the many marvelous things about this inventive little slice of tension and perversity. By staking a claim in the brand of “Cloverfield” to now be a chance for anthological horror and science fiction phobias, the potential as well as the effect of Lane mimics the best episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone where whatever supernatural terrors might be at play, the greatest menace is the man standing next to you in the dark.
For context (and in as spoiler-free a consideration as possible), that man is Howard. Played with a wonderfully sweaty intensity by John Goodman, Howard spends much of the movie as an enigma to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle, the woman he claims to have saved from “the big one.” But truth be told, all Michelle really knows is that she was in a violent car accident and has awakened inside a relatively spacious bomb shelter… with her broken leg tied to a pipe.
According to Howard, there was a major strike from the Russians, or the Chinese, or maybe it was the Martians. Either way, everybody outside is dead, and if Michelle leaves the bomb shelter, she will be breathing in toxic gas that will kill them all. But the only thing that might give our heroine a momentary pause to believe this bellicose survivalist is that Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.) is also down there with a broken arm. While hardly the sharpest tool in the submarine-sturdy bunker, Emmet seems well adjusted enough to be credible when he talks about seeing blinding lights and a “biblical” styled apocalypse that caused him to beg for Howard’s protection while Michelle was unconscious.
Yet, if Howard and Emmet are telling the truth, why does Howard’s leering insistence on having Michelle cook for them and play board games fill her and the audience with dread?
As aforementioned, the focus on three mere mortals inside a (potentially) apocalyptic setting is reminiscent of the human scale Serling inserted into his better televised yarns. But in general, the tone is a throwback to many of the old school kind of thrillers that took larger-than-life concepts and fears, and grounded them in a cynical psychology; films like Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach where most of the world ended in nuclear explosion, yet Australians are forced to quizzically carry on as if nothing happened while radioactive fallout inches closer every passing week. Similarly, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg invoked Hitchcock as a major influence at a press conference I attended.
The truth is, however, that while there are a number of familiar elements at play throughout the picture (right down to the gnawing suspicion that this might all be an elaborate and genre-friendly variation of Room at Michelle’s expense), Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle have assembled the beats in a chilling and unique way that keeps you always off-balance and constantly empathizing with Michelle about whether to view this shelter as salvation or the most spacious coffin ever designed.
In that role, Mary Elizabeth Winstead finally has a mainstream part that takes advantage of the talent she’s previously displayed so well in films like Smashed and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Her heroine is in fact a mostly non-verbal role, yet Michelle is also a character of immediate action and proactivity that never feels like she’s a victim for either Howard or the maybe-Russian-Chinese-alien-monster supposedly outside. Despite having a bum leg for most of the movie, Winstead’s character is always thinking and strategizing her next move around these men. And inside Winstead’s rapidly moving eyes, audiences will find a refreshingly resourceful hero. A survivor trapped with a possibly mad survivalist.
That is the real source of so much of the tension. While we can instantly understand what Michelle is thinking in any given scene, John Goodman’s Howard remains impenetrable for most of the picture. Standing at the precarious crossroads between dramatically intimidating and darkly humorous, this character could have easily drifted into camp and caricature, right down to the fact that he sports a handgun on his side at all times like he’s at a Donald Trump rally in Texas. However, Goodman maintains a seeming decency and bitterness in his character, forcing you to want to believe he’s a good man—all while you also hope he stays far away from Michelle’s bedroom.
Of course, this character-elicited suspense is in service to a plot that is proudly knotty with more twists and turns than there are guns in Howard’s collection. Yet, as quick-moving as the narrative is for a contained thriller, few of the surprises are actually as stunning as the filmmakers might suspect. When the revelations do come, their success has less to do with the shock and more with the sudden moment when the worm turns and how each character processes this new discovery.
Still, a shell game like this movie is only as good as the payoff in its third act, and I can attest that when all the cards about what is happening both inside and outside the shelter are laid on the table, audiences will be on their feet (or hiding behind their fingers) in approval.
If 10 Cloverfield Lane marks a real beginning to an anthology of genre movies this clever and playful from Bad Robot Productions, then this is a movie universe we should actually look forward to sharing more of our time with for years to come.