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“10 Cloverfield Lane”: Tense, Taut, Terrifying

By Johnny M

“10 Cloverfield Lane”: Tense, Taut, Terrifying

March 11, 2016 at 10:07AM EST

10 Cloverfield Lane is a film so wrapped in mystery and subterfuge that its very existence seems to constitute a spoiler warning. Filmed in secrecy under a code name, with not even the main cast knowing the movie’s real title until the trailer dropped a mere two months prior to its release, it's enigmatic even by producer J. J. Abrams’ usual standards. Factor into that equation that it's been billed as both a “spiritual successor” and “blood relative” to the Abrams-produced, similary-secretive Cloverfield, and merely discussing the film seems like navigating a minefield.

Here's what can be said without spoilers: it doesn't take place in the same continuity as Cloverfield, and there is blessedly no migraine-inducing shaky-cam. In the film's opening moments, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up after a car crash to find herself chained up in a stranger’s basement. Harold (John Goodman) tells her that he found her wrecked car on the road, and that he saved her life by bringing her to his underground bunker. He also tells her that some sort of large-scale attack or disaster has left the world uninhabitable, a claim backed up by Emmett (Joel Gallagher, Jr.), who's in the bunker by choice. As the days go on and Michelle discovers more about the reality of her situation, she's faced with deciding what's more terrifying: the unknown threat at home or the unknown threat outside.

Much like Cabin In The Woods, 10 Cloverfield Lane is almost impossible to discuss without giving away the plot twists, and the film is so densely constructed that it seems to inherently resist isolating specific moments. The narrative is immediate and fluid at the same time, but also as tight and claustrophobic as the bunker where the vast majority of the film takes place. First-feature director Dan Gallagher keeps the fancy camera tricks and editing to a minimum, allowing the film to unfold organically and making the few times the editing does jump (like during Michelle’s crash in the film’s prologue) all the more effective.

While the cramped setting and Bear McCreary’s unsettlingly emphatic score do a lot to keep the film tense and vital, the film's heart truly lies in Mary Elizabeth Winstead. With an open face that belies the complexities she carries within, Winstead is effortlessly natural and sympathetic. While she's the film's Final Girl by default, it's nonetheless fascinating to watch Michelle change over the course of the narrative. When her car crashed, Michelle was fleeing the home she shared with her fiancee after an unspecified argument between the two of them, and she admits in her conversations with Emmett that her natural inclination is to run from trouble. Suddenly, she finds herself in a situation where running is next to impossible, and she must mine her own inner recsources for new survival techniques. Winstead says more with her eyes than many actresses do with 90 minutes of dialogue, and she turns what could have easily been another indie-film scream queen role into a surprisingly robust character study. 

John Goodman matches Winstead nearly beat for beat, though. Harold at first comes off as intensely socially stunted, with a disconnected gentility that seems to indicate that his ideas of hopsitality are all theory, no practice, and something he doesn't particularly care for in the first place. As the film goes on, he shifts back and forth from endearingly awkward to frigteningly odd, often with no warning and without context. Goodman fully inhabits the role, and the tension between him and Winstead is palpable and gripping; nearly every interaction between them is a heart-tightening duel of personalities. Since the film is, for all intents and purposes, Michelle's first-person narrative, Harold's inner workings are as mysterious to the audience as they are to her, and it's difficult to ever determine who in the bunker is telling the whole truth or if anyone is even telling any truth at all. Michelle's interactions with Emmett don't hold nearly the same amount of underlying drama by comparison, which isn't a fault of Joel Gallagher's. He's fine in the role, but Emmett really seems like a third wheel in a two-person play.

While the film stays securely in the bunker and focuses on how its three inhabitants adjust to their situation, it feels coolly electric, propulisve in a restrained but undeniable way. Once the final act arrives and the climax comes, however, there's an abrput tonal shift that disrupts the flow that has so easily moved the film along. Dan Gallagher is good at regaining his footing, however, and the final parts of the film find a new, distinct, and satisfying rhythm, but it doesn't erase the rough transition between the two phases. It helps that by that point the audience has become so fully invested in Michelle's situation that Winstead is able to easily carry the film into whatever new territoriy awaits it.

If the original Cloverfield was a modern take on a classic kaiju film, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a modern take on a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. The narrative establishes itself early on as a very easily (possibly even too easily) grasped kind of plausible, and its earthiness helps make everything seem that much more dangerous. It invisibly stretches the realism of its premise in terrifyingly believable ways. After all, what's more frightening than realizing that home is indeed where the horror is? 

FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+