With the 24/7 media blitz that is Hollywood, the fact anyone can make a secret movie and release it with zero advance knowledge is remarkable. But, then again, what do you expect when you have J.J. Abrams – master of the “puzzle box” theory of filmmaking – involved in some capacity? Described as a “blood relative” to the 2008 found footage horror film, Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an expertly taut tale of suspense, blending horror and tension from the likes of the Twilight Zone, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and even Take Shelter.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has just left her boyfriend after an inconsequential fight. When she’s involved in a car accident and wakes up in the basement of a doomsday survivalist named Howard (John Goodman), Michelle will do anything it takes to get away. Unfortunately, Howard’s declarations that the world is under attack is seemingly accurate, leaving Michelle and fellow survivor, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) scared but safe…or are they?
Much like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho, we’re introduced to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle as she runs away from her past, driving on a lonely stretch of road with nothing but her thoughts to occupy her. A car slams into her in easily the most heart-rending opening credits sequence I’ve seen in years.
The script – credited to Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle – never shows its cards early. Michelle is a smart woman; she knows nothing good ever comes from a woman being held in the basement, and the film spends its first half with Michelle crafting up ways to escape. But is escape truly in her best interests? As Emmett tells her, he was trying to get into Howard’s fall-out shelter. By living in the here and now, devoid of flashbacks as a means of authenticating anyone’s viewpoint, a vein of ambiguity runs throughout the entire film, hiding in the shadows. Who is lying? Is all this paranoia?
John Goodman dazzles as the paranoid Howard. He’s a duct-tape collecting doomsdayer who’d you anticipate seeing on 20/20 in the weeks leading up to Y2K or the Iraq War. Goodman’s got the creep factor down pat, popping up in doorways unannounced and having a staunch code of etiquette for those living with him – always use coasters and put the DVDs back in their sleeves – yet he puts the audience at ease by acknowledging that what he says sounds crazy. Howard isn’t written as a drooling hillbilly, but a man who critiques America’s complete compulsion to prevent catastrophe but “What do you do when those alarms go off? Crazy is when you build the ark after the flood.” Howard’s proactive in a landscape where people buy guns to feel safe, the weapon acting as a talisman shielding all horrors.
Nearly a single-location film, the audience experiences the claustrophobia of being imprisoned, both through Michelle’s “abduction” and the actual confines of the shelter itself. Michelle’s trip through the air ducts to restore the air filtration system makes manifest the trapped nature of her circumstances. And because this is a J.J. Abrams film in some capacity, the methodical pace allows you time to take note of minute objects, in the hopes of finding a puzzle piece to connect this to its predecessor, so anything from an envelope on the ground to a sign takes on added significance.
Director Dan Trachtenberg builds up the tension subtly, leaving room for humor and character development. Winstead, who dominates every scene of the movie both through her personality – running from flirtatious to manipulative to terrified – and her actions, has fantastic chemistry opposite Gallagher as the doofy Emmett. For his part, Gallagher comes off like a poor man’s John Krasinski but ends up imbuing Emmett with similarities to Michelle, leading to some intriguing gender dynamics regarding the ways men and women avoid conflict.
Going in completely cold serves both the audience and film itself. Without revealing anything, the fall-out shelter hides so much while simultaneously providing an enough to sustain the runtime. There’s very little breathing room with a pervasive air of questioning and fear. Even once a character’s true motivations come through one’s still left wondering what’s more terrifying, the unknown outside or what’s contained within?
A true mark of a film’s quality is when I put my pen down and let everything unfold, which happened about fifteen minutes in. 10 Cloverfield Lane uses straightforward storytelling to tell an old-fashioned tale. So much of this could have been translated from a radio drama in the 1940s and composer Bear McCreary’s pounding score keeps the audience as on-edge as the characters. A must-see for the month of March!