'10 Cloverfield Lane' exploits paranoia, serves up well-crafted thrills

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“10 Cloverfield Lane” keeps audiences on the edge of their seats with captivating performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. (pictured) and John Goodman.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Forget everything about the original “Cloverfield.” The hectic found-footage style is gone. There’s no giant monster ravaging a city. In their place is a taut, Hitchcockian triller set in just a few rooms and a smaller, yet scarier, threat.

Produced by J.J. Abrams and helmed by first-time director Dan Trachtenberg, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is less a sequel than a spiritual successor. Like “Cloverfield,” it thrusts ordinary characters into extraordinary situations that push them beyond their limits. For fans of the original, there’s a science-fiction element that lurks beneath the film’s surface — or rather, above it.

The picture mostly takes place in an underground bunker. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up inside it after a near-fatal car accident and finds herself captive to a controlling survivalist, Howard (John Goodman). Howard tells Michelle that America has been attacked by chemical weapons, poisoning the air, but Michelle doesn’t believe him and stages an escape.

Though a reliable scream queen for some time now, Winstead switches gear and shows off some serious butt-kicking skills in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Her heroine is intelligent, tough and resourceful from the start, easily putting all damsels-in-distress to shame.  

Michelle stops short of escaping the bunker when she discovers Howard is telling the truth: The world outside has indeed been attacked by an unknown force. When Michelle realizes the bunker is her only hope for survival, she begins to enjoy a relatively comfortable existence with Howard and the only other occupant, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local slacker.

Gallager’s Emmett is immediately likable, an everyman swept up by the cruelness of fate and a touching male counterpart for Michelle. Howard, however, is initially creepy, only revealing capacity for kindness when he warms up to Michelle. Goodman balances Howard’s sometimes tyrannical exterior with his charming comic sensibilities, and for much of the 105-minute running time, the audience is never quite sure what kind of person Howard is. In non-spoiler terms, his performance is rave-worthy material.

After the measured, slow-paced first half, a maintenance chore leads Michelle to a horrifying discovery about the bunker that reignites her need to escape, and the story kicks into overdrive.Trachtenberg proves a masterful crafter of suspense and thrills, fully exploiting the film’s suffocating location and our fear of the enemies who lurk in plain sight. He also sets up later events with smaller moments, drawing focus to random items for seemingly no reason and later having Michelle put them to good use as weapons or survival gear. It helps that the script, written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, provides the unpredictability thrillers thrive on.

Like Hitchcock, Trachtenberg tends to visually highlight story beats and themes. An early shot of Michelle abandoning her engagement ring is far more effective than listening to a sad phone call. In the bunker, he and cinematographer Jeff Cutter often frame the shots of the three characters with Michelle situated between Howard and Emmett, who face each other while she recedes back from the camera, emphasizing her tendency to withdraw
from conflict. 

But “10 Cloverfield Lane” revolves around the mystery. What really happened outside the bunker? What dangers lie in store? The answer is delivered in the film’s final ten minutes, and it is, inevitably, kind of underwhelming. That’s not to say the last part of the movie is bad — it’s tensely staged, bombastic and just plain mad. One could say it is even triumphant.

Perhaps Trachtenberg and company were setting themselves up to disappoint, because while the threat Michelle faces on the surface is definitely monstrous, it is the bunker that serves up the film’s best scares. Evil without a face is terrifying, but evil with a face? 

That’s something else.

10 Cloverfield Lane
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Score: 4/5 stars