At the beginning of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving into the night when she crashes into a ditch. She wakes up in a cinder-block bunker, handcuffed to a pipe, and the glint of terror in her eyes tells you that she’s probably seen Saw and at least a couple of its sequels. What horror, we wonder, lies in store for her? Is she about to be tortured? Defiled?
Her captor soon enters the room, and the moment we register that he’s played by the generally jolly John Goodman, now wearing a beard and a permanently angry scowl, we think: uh-oh, this is what it looks like when casting against type gets really ugly. It’s hard not to flash back to memories of a far more recent movie – Room, with its valiant ingénue-victim and sexual predator.
There has been some sort of terrible attack: from a rival global superpower, or maybe a race of aliens
The setup, however, is a bit of a fake-out. Howard has indeed made Michelle his prisoner – but only, he claims, to save her life. Above ground, there has been some sort of terrible attack: from a rival global superpower, or maybe a race of aliens. The air has been poisoned, and almost everyone exposed to it has died. What’s more, Michelle isn’t Howard’s only prisoner. There’s a third wheel in the bunker, a yokel of a handyman named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), and Howard soon opens up the hideaway to both of them: kitchen, living room, entertainment system stocked with DVDs. He may or may not be some sort of monster, but he’s most definitely a doomsday survivalist, the kind of paranoid loner who has spent years waiting for the end to come. That’s why he has built this cramped but comfy suburban Hobbit-hole. Now that the end is here, he feels vindicated.
As Goodman plays him, with alternating currents of rage and courtliness, Howard is one part crazed control freak, another part savage protector. He’s whatever the movie needs him to be, since 10 Cloverfield Lane is an opportunistic hodgepodge of a thriller. Scene for scene, it’s well acted and not badly done, but you’re always aware that you’re watching a concoction. It’s Room meets Deathtrap meets Night of the Living Dead meets War of the Worlds. In a less fanciful, more grounded thriller, the suspense would be built around Michelle’s attempt at escape. But since there’s no safe world to escape to the suspense in 10 Cloverfield Lane hangs on the question: where the heck is this thing even heading?
Winstead, who had a striking presence in two films directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now and Smashed), acts with a darting-eyed sensuality. The film pivots around the way she deals with Howard the creep by pretending to bond with him. Goodman uses his imposing girth to imply that he’s perpetually a step away from violence, but it’s Winstead’s Michelle, lithe and barefoot like a dancer, who’s really in control. She fights him off by seducing his trust.
The film’s last act seems like it was lifted out of another film entirely
The director, Dan Trachtenberg, stages each scene with maximum vivacity and spatial cunning, so that a drama set almost entirely in a dank rural basement never feels claustrophobic. There are sequences that kick the story along: Michelle and Emmett’s secret plan, which hinges on constructing a homemade gas mask; a barrel of acid that promises to dissolve flesh on contact – and does, quite spectacularly. Goodman plays the menace card with crafty plausibility, though the film would have been better had it let him be the full-on monster it keeps hinting he may be.
So does 10 Cloverfield Lane actually have an organic connection to the first Cloverfield (2008), which was basically a millennial Godzilla movie tricked up with Blair Witch-style handheld camerawork? Both films were produced by JJ Abrams (slumming it) and in the end there’s a vague creature-feature link between them – though in the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, what’s attention-grabbing about the film’s last act is mostly that it seems like it was lifted out of another film entirely. In today’s conformist popcorn environment, that can play as audacity. But really, it’s just desperation, as if the filmmakers were eager to do anything under the sun to set the audience abuzz. By the end, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like a marketing plan posing as a movie.
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