It’s a lovely thing these days to have a movie project take you by surprise. The J.J. Abrams-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t on anyone’s radar coming into 2016, yet here we are in March discussing and debating this suddenly highly anticipated film. A spiritual sequel to the original Cloverfield, this film drops the found footage genre it helped create in favor of a smaller story and bigger tension.
When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes in a bunker after a car accident, she finds herself locked in with overbearing ex-Navy doom prepper Howard Stambler (John Goodman) and lovable loser Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.). As Michelle begins to piece together how she got there, Howard reveals that there’s no leaving the cellar due to a cataclysmic chemical attack that has left he outside world uninhabitable. The film, directed by first time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, is mostly a slow burn psychological thriller fueled by superb performances by its lead (and only) three actors.
While I’ll spare you any major spoiler details, the secrecy surrounding the psuedo-sequel (this definitely has no connection to the original Cloverfield) is one of its greatest assets. Since the first trailer for the film dropped just over a month before 10 Cloverfield Lane’s release, audiences haven’t had much to time to mull over and over-dissect the twist that’s apparent from the marketing – and that’s for the best. The twist is a fun, if not somewhat predictable, end cap to a movie that otherwise brilliantly plays with subtle, psychological suspense in its claustrophobic setting.
John Goodman is phenomenal in this one, always walking the line between endearing and absolutely terrifying. Frankly, I found the mystery surrounding the state of Howard’s sanity more intriguing than the overall mystery of what happened outside of the walls of the bunker, and that’s the real benchmark to Goodman’s performance.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead also clocks in with one of her most layered and interesting performances. Michelle is a strong, intelligent character and Winstead brings that to table, along with some vulnerability. She’s the audience proxy for this movie, and you discover its secrets and horrors through her eyes, with Winstead carrying that weight wonderfully.
John Gallagher Jr. is the last part of the trio with a less central, but certainly pivotal role. On the surface, Emmet is the comic relief, but Gallagher Jr. brings charm and naiveté to the character and his performance (and occasionally the screenplay) is in many ways the most difficult to make three-dimensional, yet the character totally works.
Speaking of the screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, it’s brilliant in its dialogue and how it manipulates the characters and the audiences’s understanding of what is actually happening. But the screenplay is also maddening at times, with basic questions that anyone (including the audience) would ask left unsaid and causing the characters to react in unnecessary ways that are just frustrating to watch.
Even though the performances are riveting and the writing is solid for the most part, another downside of the film lies in some slower moments in the earlier scenes. 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t really overstay its welcome and Trachtenberg cuts the film very well, but occasionally it still moves too slow for its own good. In essence, this is an indie short stretched out to feature length, with a running time just seventeen minutes short of two hours.
Lastly, I’ll give one small spoiler-free thought about the third act twist that I’m sure everyone will be talking about once the film goes public. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid Hitchcock-ian thriller with a fairly uninspired M. Night Shymalan twist ending. Sure, it’s handled a little better by Trachtenberg, but it’s still gimmicky and a bit of a letdown. When the film stays small, its cast and creative team really put forth some top-notch suspense, but don’t purchase a ticket expecting to have your mind blown with the fairly predictable third act reveal.