10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie that works on subverting expectations – for both the audience and its characters. It does this continually throughout its svelte 106 minute runtime, but first with its own name. The title of the film suggests some kind of tie-in to the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield – and without extensive digging, perhaps that is what the viewer expects when sitting down in their theater seat. J.J. Abrams still has a producer credit on the film, after all, so might as well break out the popcorn. But what the viewer receives instead is something quite a lot scarier – and frankly a lot more interesting.
(No major spoilers here – eternal scout’s honor.)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a woman on the run from a failing relationship, whose flight from her fiancée (or possibly her husband – we don’t know for sure) ends in a violent car crash. When she wakes up it’s in the company of Howard (John Goodman), a man who is either a lecherous captor, a manic but kind-hearted good samaritan, or both. While recovering from her injuries, Michelle quickly learns that the world has ended while she was sleeping – or so she is told. The cause is unclear, but it’s certain that the air has gone bad. Thankfully Howard has built a deluxe underground bunker and plans to stay there until the fallout dissipates – a paltry one to two years, give or take. The bunker also has another resident: local slacker and occasional handyman Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.). Looks like the three of them are just going to have to wait it out – the promise of radiation sickness or worse is all too horrifying. Unless, of course, Howard is lying…
The film tips its hat to Hitchcock on more than one occasion (especially Psycho for anyone watching even kind-of-closely). That is to say, most of the horror is derived from suspense and atmosphere – Howard’s threatening presence, his secret activities, the mystery of what will happen next – and the intrigue of what may have become of the world beyond. The results are surprising and aren’t easy to predict. Much like its sort-of predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t telegraph much about its ending or its implications to the viewer. For a change, director Dan Tratchenberg encourages viewers to take a ride into the unknown, gripping the rails the whole way down.
Goddard and Casey’s screenplay is riveting, intelligent, and dangerous. There’s not much in the way of torture porn, so Hostel fans will have to look elsewhere. The gruesome bits lie within the human soul. The pared down cast is reminiscent of a three-character stage drama (hard not to think of Rope here) and Goodman, Gallagher, and Winstead work their asses off. Goodman in particular is masterful in his portrayal of Howard, a blend of Santa Claus, simpleton, and war-hardened survivalist rolled into one enigmatic ball of menace. Winstead is at a personal best as the most realistic and endearing horror movie heroine since Maika Monroe in It Follows.
I won’t say much for the film’s unpredictable final act other than it will have you gasping for air.