“I’m going to keep you alive.”
In most respects, or at least for the majority of its runtime, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a guessing game of cat and mouse. Tinges of murder mystery, shades of proselytized persuasion, tiny reveals followed by bigger questions. You’ll wonder what’s going on. You’ll pledge an allegiance to one side before defecting towards the other. Expect that heading in. In this little chamber piece of a story though, with characters so richly real and human, the confined location ends up being strangely cathartic for the people on the screen as well as for those in the crowd. 10 Cloverfield Lane may have issues as one cohesive film, but its undercutting theme always pushes forward in search of truth, meaning, and destiny. I wish more movies took as many bold risks as this one.
The film exercises the tool of inference from the get go. We see a nameless woman – who we later find out to be Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – packing up in an apartment. Clues in the background of what she does for a living, quick shots of what she grabs (clothes, scotch) and what she leaves behind (a ring). Minutes later she wakes to any woman’s greatest nightmare. Tiny room, chained, hooked up to an IV. And in walks Howard (John Goodman). A towering behemoth of a man, assuring that she is safe. But safe from what? All he knows is that something has happened, and is thus convinced that everyone still outside is dead.
10 Cloverfield Lane builds its own functioning world down in Howard’s extensive bunker. Roles and rules and order are to be observed. With them is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who helped build the fortress, and who Howard reluctantly let in. Emmett blindly believes Howard’s prophetic assumptions while Michelle always questions his motive. Who can blame them either? He’s clearly an unhinged and psychologically unstable man, a perplexing combination of a groveling manner with a fear-inducing ideology. With them, the film is relentlessly intense because we’re never sure what exactly is going to happen. It’s so clandestine that, even when we do get resolutions, you’re still in the backroom, trying to solve a proof without being able to show all of the work. Sometimes things go awry, or perfectly fine, and Dan Trachtenberg’s terrific debut feature thrives off of keeping us on our toes. Although, it’s easy to shatter expectations when we don’t really know what we’re getting into.
Trachtenberg really does some fine directing, laboring through a long and nearly dialogue free open to get into the meat of the story. It doesn’t hurt to have this cast either. I’ve been praising Gallagher Jr. since his work in Short Term 12. Winstead again showcases her talent through a surprisingly physical role. It’s rounded out by Goodman as you’ve never seen him, putting on full display how much screen presence the man has. Damien Chazelle (director/writer of Whiplash) helped pen the script, and in Howard we see so many of the traits of drum maestro Terence Fletcher. Both men do what they believe to be essential to finding truth, but Howard is the more disturbing of the two because his generosity comes with absolutely no humility. That’s the crux of it all. Eventually, this tale in the “Cloverfield universe” becomes everything you expect, but the road to that point is still unpredictable and unfamiliar. 10 Cloverfield Lane searches for freedom in the face of a potential doomsday. Maybe that’s not to be found, but its attempt is worthwhile.
“I knew this day would come. It’s not safe out there.”
Rating: 4 out of 5