10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg): So here’s the premise: Michele (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up after a car crash to find herself in a dank cellar with an injured leg and a wrist handcuffed to a pipe. Her seeming kidnapper, Howard (John Goodman), informs her that there’s no use trying to escape or call the police—the world as they know it is over, and there’s no way they’re leaving the cellar, at least not for a year. Fearing that Howard is a mortal threat regardless of whether what he says about the world is true, Michele and fellow survivor/captive Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) devise an escape plan.
Oh, right—Cloverfield is also in the title.
First-time directed Dan Trachtenberg excels at ratcheting up the tension. Has Michele been kidnapped by a crazy redneck? Or has the world outside really come to an end? And if it is all over, what kind of attack is it? Nuclear? Biological? Is the attack coming from the Russians? The Chinese? Aliens? Because there’s no way for Michele to figure out any of it for sure without going outside, the mysteries compound as more and more elements get piled on—the dead pigs outside the cellar, the neighbor who pays a visit, the spine-chilling artifacts Michele and Emmett find around the compound—to the point where it’s not entirely clear whether Howard (John Goodman) is a well-meaning if harsh patriarch or really a cold-hearted, domineering psychopath. It’s really got nothing to do with the 2008 film of a similar name, and Abrams admits as much when he says 10 Cloverfield Lane is a “spiritual successor,” which is a fancy way of saying they were afraid no one would go see this pretty good film if its title was as dull as The Cellar.
The distraction in the title is just that—a distraction. It’s definitely a reason I went out of my way to see the film, but I also found myself constantly wondering whether the film was going to subvert my expectations. Gripping as the narrative is, my involvement was more “Okay, so if this happened, I wonder if this will happen,” rather than “I can’t wait to see what happens next.” Part of that is partially my own fault. I liked Cloverfield and entertained the idea that this flick could somehow be loosely connected (I mean come on—you don’t emphasize that word in your title by accident), and went in both trying to predict what was in store and attempting to keep an open, clean-slate mind. But because that purposeful distraction is there, a decent chunk of my moviegoing experience became a weird kind of meta-viewing—engaged enough by the film that I enjoyed the experience, but also detached enough where I constantly peeled myself away from the on-screen action to consider what might be coming.
But that’s not much in the way of criticism, because 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid film featuring terrific interplay between its three leads. Mary Elizabeth Winstead serves as a perfect surrogate for the audience, asking the kinds of questions we would ask if thrust into a similar situation, harboring the kinds of suspicions we would harbor if a possibly-psychotic survivalist like Howard told us we were in that basement handcuffed to a pipe for our own good. John Goodman achieves something rare—a villain that is not always clearly a villain, and one who is not conscious of his own villainy because his worldview can’t allow for it. John Gallagher Jr. acts as a perfect balance between Howard’s overbearingness and Michele’s nimble wit as the schlubby, not terribly-bright handyman. Director Trachtenberg excels at subverting expectations by constantly throwing wrenches into whatever you think is about to happen without any of the twists (except for one, sort of) being gimmicky in that stupid M. Night Shyamalan manner.
SPOILERS: The only “real” criticism I have is of the last twenty minutes, which goes on too long because the gig is up. Having revealed all there is to reveal, the kind of suspense the film tries to switch to—from cramped paranoia to sandbox survival—is too big a shift tonally to be effective. Trachtenberg would have been better off cutting to black once Michele sees the alien spaceship in the cornfield coming her way after unwittingly getting its attention and uttering a perfectly-timed “Come on,” but instead we have an extended cat-and-mouse chase sequence which ultimately resolves itself with a Molotov cocktail in the mouth of the alien mothership. It’s set up, sure—we see Michele grab a bottle of booze before leaving her apartment in the first sequence of the film, and Howard mentions that he regrets not taking it from her car when he pulls her from the wreckage (a lie)—but the payoff isn’t necessary.