Let’s clarifying something up front: “10 Cloverfield Lane” isn’t a sequel to J.J. Abrams’ 2008 giant monster-takes-Manhattan flick “Cloverfield” – at least not a direct one. It is, at most, a companion piece, one whose connection to the other isn’t specified until the final act, and even then in a way that raises questions but answers none. Check your expectations at the door.
That said, it is a damn fine psycho-thriller that sets the viewer’s nerves on edge and then plucks the hell out of them for the better part of 105 minutes.
The movie gets of to a quietly urgent start during its opening credits, with fashion designer Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hitting the Louisiana highways after a breakup. After a bizarre car accident she wakes up in the doomsday bunker of Howard, an anxious, gruff, and controlling veteran (played with gloriously frightening mood swings by John Goodman) who tells her there’s been an ‘attack’ that has contaminated the surface. Also living with Howard is neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms the story.
The nature of the attack and its perpetrators are not known, though Howard speculates on possibilities ranging from nukes to biological warfare via the Russians, North Koreans, and/or Martians. Needless to say, Michelle and Emmett are unsettled by both Howard’s paranoia as well as his hair-trigger temper. The choice is a tough one: spend a year or more in a bunker with him, or take their chances with an apparent apocalypse.
There’s more to it than that, but it would be unfair to elaborate on the movie’s twists here. Abrams produced it, but director Dan Trachtenberg (in his feature-length debut) and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle make it their own and ratchet up the tension throughout with precision timing, patiently parsing out details and the true nature of their characters’ dilemma until a tipping point is reached. That they do so mostly with one location and a cast of three speaks volumes.
Goodman is responsible for most of the film’s tension. Over the years he’s demonstrated a knack for playing likable and sinister, funny and serious, but not often all of those at once and rarely with the force he does here. There’s a near-constant undeniable aura of menace around Howard, yet Goodman humanizes and slow-plays him a way that makes him likable at times and keeps us guessing.
The movie was originally titled “The Cellar” and was re-titled and folded into the Cloverfield universe at some point later in production, which explains much in terms of tone, style, and premise in comparison to the latter. Abrams and company navigate the limitations of his trademark ‘mystery box’ approach surprisingly well, and against all logic “10 Cloverfield Lane” weirdly fits with its predecessor. It not only sets up another not-quite-sequel, it also demands one.