Back in 2008, ‘Cloverfield’ erupted onto cinema screens out of a cloud of intrigue and mystery. An electrifying and refreshing take on the monster movie genre, it had been marketed as a tantalising mystery, even its name only being revealed at the last minute. It’s a trick its creative team have attempted again with ’10 Cloverfield Lane’, another mysterious film offering a mysterious premise, and this time featuring that enigmatic word in the title. Once again, we’ve been promised a look inside of producer J. J. Abrams’ mystery box. What on earth will we find in there this time?
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes after a car accident to find herself locked in a self-contained underground bunker. Its owner, Howard (John Goodman), tells her that a catastrophe has occurred outside, and this is the only safe place left. With only Howard and another survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) as companions, Michelle carefully tries to piece the situation together, to work out if Howard is lying or telling the truth - before the increasingly unstable Howard does something terrible.
Taught, claustrophobic and surprisingly unforgiving, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is a blistering debut for director Dan Trachtenberg and a worthy successor to ‘Cloverfield’. Working from a screenplay by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken (and revised by ‘Whiplash’ writer/director Damien Chazelle), the film plays with that most wonderful of setups in genre storytelling - to take ordinary characters and placing them in an extraordinary situation. Confined within the walls of the bunker, both Michelle and Emmett quickly begin to question whether the greater threat is outside or in there with them, and this combined with the fixed location makes ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ more of a character chamber piece than the sensory experience of its predecessor. Like Stephen King at its best, it leaves the clever concept to creep menacingly in the background, far more interested in exploring the dense and dangerous psychology of trapped human beings in a state of crisis. Dread drips through every frame of the film because dread is so clearly inevitable, and at surprising moments, the film erupts into unexpected emotional and physical brutality. Trachtenberg quickly establishes a careful tension in the rhythm and framing of the film and continues to turn the screw tighter and tighter, allowing those moments of genuine dread to grow and develop to the point you find yourself on the edge of your seat. Jeff Cutter’s cinematography is carefully composed and gives a tremendous cinematic quality to the bunker, which production designer Ramsey Avery fills with odd and unnerving detail. It’s a self-contained world built to enclose and combust, and when the many narrative twists and turns occur, its to the great credit of the creative team that each lands with tremendous ferocity.
Even more impressive are the three central performances. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is far too exciting an actor to have allowed Michelle to be the typical damsel-in-distress, and she becomes the central driving force of the film; even when faced with bizarre and baffling circumstances, she keeps her head and her determination to survive. Her easy chemistry with John Gallagher Jr. is wonderful, Emmett being the necessary gentle buffer between Michelle and Howard. However, it’s John Goodman who steals the film, delivering some of his best work in years as Howard. I’ve always wanted to see Goodman play a complex antagonist like this, and he’s just as terrific as I hoped he would be: a hypnotic combination of empty monstrosity and frightening humanity. There’s nothing cliché about his performance, the tremendous attention to detail keeping you constantly on alert, unaware of where this dangerous animal might go next.
But what does it have to do with ‘Cloverfield’? In a literal sense, absolutely nothing at all. There’s no common characters or narrative points, events from the first film are never discussed, they don’t even exist in the same narrative universe. What does link them though is much more interesting, and this new film makes it clear what Abrams is up to - he and his creative partners are crafting what can best be described as the cinematic equivalent of ‘The Twilight Zone’. These are self-contained stories playing with genre, built around clever setups and a sudden third-act narrative kick. They also offer young filmmakers their chance at a debut feature (Matt Reeves, the director of ‘Cloverfield’, has since gone on to tremendous success with ‘Let Me In’ and ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’), and they continue to build the ‘Cloverfield’ brand of mystery and intrigue. ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ in particular feels like a throwback to the great concept thrillers of the 70s or the early works of directors like Spielberg, a time when genre wasn’t such a dirty word. If this is where Abrams plans to go with the ‘Cloverfield’ titles - and everything about this film suggests just that - then I for one cannot wait to see this franchise bloom and grow.
Taught, claustrophobic and surprisingly unforgiving, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is a blistering debut for director Dan Trachtenberg and a worthy successor to ‘Cloverfield’.
’10 Cloverfield Lane’ had me glued to my seat from beginning to end, an endlessly thrilling and surprisingly disturbing little gem that takes its clever concept and spins it into something punchy and fresh. We like to think that human beings in an intense situation would act with honour and humanity, but somehow the nightmare that this film cooks up feels all the more intriguing and likely. Dan Trachtenberg handles the careful machinations of the plot and characters beautifully, and the film is lifted immensely by three terrific central performances. Of course, as dictated by the presence of the word ‘Cloverfield’, it has something special waiting around the corner in its finale, and you won’t have me spoiling anything here. As much as it might be careful and considered, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is also just as brazen and ambitious, and as I watched with Michelle as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I couldn’t help but giggle with glee. Sometimes it’s just the best fun hearing a great bedtime story told really, really well.