You know what I’m afraid of more than aliens? Car accidents and strangers. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes a step back from the sci-fi scares of the first film in the franchise and instead presents audiences with an emotionally complex nail-biter about a woman held captive in an underground bunker, allegedly for her own good.
At the start of the film, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her fiance, packing her bag and hitting the road. As night falls, she gets into a car accident and wakes up handcuffed to a pipe in an underground bunker, attached to an IV and wearing a brace on her now-injured leg. Initially, Michelle panics, assuming that she has been abducted for nefarious reasons. Before long, however, her captor, Howard (John Goodman) arrives to reassure her that he means her no harm. Rather, he saved her life by bringing her to the bunker. There was an attack and everyone else is gone. As she passes time with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard build the underground shelter, Michelle has to decide if she believes Howard or not, and cope with the emotional consequences. Either she’s being held captive by a madman, or everyone she’s known and loved is dead.
10 Cloverfield Lane uses a single location and three actors for the majority of the film, maximizing on the simplicity, and telling a story that packs an emotional punch and twists enough to keep the audience unsure of what to believe without pushing too far. The story works well at maintaining ambiguity, as along the way it seems clear that Howard is telling the truth, or that he is a bad guy, or both. To pull-off this type of story takes a dedication to nuance and character development that is often lacking in this genre. The slow burn of the plot works especially well given the relative lack of violence. The story simmers along under the assumption that something bad could happen. A few violent bursts pepper the film, but the restraint is pronounced compared to the gore that has become typical in horror movies and thrillers.
To support the outstanding screenplay, the performances by the three leads bring depth and nuance to their characters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle with a strength that is not so straightforward that it is hard to believe her character’s history of running from conflict. John Goodman’s performance is really behind the success of the film. Had he not been so believable as both a scary creep and a benevolent kook, the ambiguities of the story would not have worked. Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, John Gallagher Jr’s Emmett is charming, but also just enough of a gullible slacker that it’s hard to give his word the weight it needs for Michelle to seem safe.
The sets and props are integral to telling the story, as they create a detailed picture of whom the characters are when the audience has so little else to go on. The team on 10 Cloverfield Lane did a wonderful job of creating a world in a limited space, allowing the characters to develop into a weird little dysfunctional family in the facsimile of a home, even as everything else seems very wrong. The subtly-retro quality of the props and furnishings lend the film a warm, worn quality that enhances the writing and acting.
Some have heralded 10 Cloverfield Lane as opening a new frontier in movie franchises. I think that perhaps this claim is overblown. Even still, the care given to creating characters, rather than dwelling on science fiction world-building makes this film an outstanding entry into the Cloverfield franchise, and, up until the last ten minutes, a taut, compelling stand-alone narrative as well. That said, the ending that ultimately connects this movie to its predecessor feels superfluous. There’s a distinct moment at the film’s end where I think the credits could have rolled and the movie would have been perfect. The rest of the movie makes sense, and I will forgive it for doing the work of connecting installments in a series, but if it had been left on the cutting room floor, I wouldn’t have missed it even a little.
For its excellent writing and performances, but somewhat tacked-on ending, I rate 10 Cloverfield Lane 4/5 stars.
10 Cloverfield Lane was written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, and directed by Dan Trachtenberg. It runs 103 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language.
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