The best way to approach 10 Cloverfield Lane is to put all that Cloverfield business out of your mind and enjoy the movie for what it is: a taut, expertly calibrated thriller, set almost entirely within cramped quarters, about three strangers trying to figure out if they can trust each other.
The central protagonist is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a fashion designer who wakes up after a car accident chained to a cot in some sort of underground chamber. Howard (John Goodman), an anxious, worrisome man who brings her food on a tray as if she were a prisoner, tells her there’s been some kind of attack — a “big one” — and that everyone she knows is dead and the planet is either contaminated or poisoned by radiation and they will have to wait a year or two before it’s safe to go outside.
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Who is responsible? Maybe the Russians, or maybe Martians, Howard speculates. “You think I sound crazy,” he tells Michelle after noticing how she’s looking at him. But there’s another man living in the shelter, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who doesn’t seem weird or troubled in any way, and who confirms Howard’s story. He tells Michelle he saw the attack — a big flash of red that consumed everything, like something you read about in the Bible — and he seems resigned to make the best of the situation and wait things out. What other choice is there?
First-time director Dan Trachtenberg, who landed the 10 Cloverfield Lane gig on the strength of several TV commercials and the short film Portal: No Escape that went viral in 2011, doesn’t string you along: Within the first half-hour, Michelle confirms something horrible has indeed happened to the world and leaving the bunker to go outside would mean a ghastly death. Besides, Howard has stocked his bomb shelter with plenty of food and movies and books and board games, and there’s enough food to wait out the apocalypse. He even installed a shower curtain in the bathroom. He’s a thoughtful, generous guy. But something about him seems … off.
Goodman has played likable teddy bears and sinister cretins throughout his career. But he’s rarely had the opportunity to play a character that is both of those things at once. Howard is a cross between Dan from TV’s Roseanne and the salesman who oozed pus from his ears in Barton Fink. Goodman’s performance is so effective — you keep changing your mind about him — that 10 Cloverfield Lane builds up a creepy aura of menace even though nothing seems to be happening. A scene in which the trio sits down for a dinner that goes from pleasant to psycho in a matter of seconds is a highlight.
Eventually, the movie begins to turn the screws and Winstead, who entranced Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and fought off shape-shifting extraterrestrials in the 2011 remake of The Thing, is forced to take drastic action. Yes, I’m being intentionally vague here, because a big part of the film’s tension comes from not knowing what, exactly, Michelle’s dilemma actually is.
Unlike 2008’s Cloverfield, which was sold from the start as a found-footage movie about a giant monster attacking New York City, 10 Cloverfield Lane is being marketed as something more mysterious — it’s a sibling of that previous film but definitely not a sequel. That turns out to be true, but the curiosity created by the ingenious trailers could backfire, leaving audiences asking, “Is that it?” 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was reworked from a script originally titled The Cellar, is dark, nasty fun that gets better when you play it over in your head. But the plot holes seem even larger in hindsight, too. Just tamp down those expectations, then tamp them down some more.
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg.
Screenwriters: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 103 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.