A few short months ago, few, if any, were aware that a quasi-extension of the Cloverfield universe was in the works. Much like the original film and 2011's Super 8 (which also, strangely enough, works as a companion piece), 10 Cloverfield Lane's marketing has been covered the "Abrams shroud". Nowadays going into a film mostly blind is a special experience, one that is made extraordinary when said film is, thus far, the year’s most exhilarating cinematic offering.
10 Cloverfield Lane begins with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaving one relationship only to enter another – the newer one formed against her will and primarily set in a doomsday bunker. After waking up from a violent car accident, the bunker’s owner, Howard (John Goodman), states that he is her rescuer and will be her savior for the next couple of years. And yet the other resident, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), seemingly has no complaints. In this underground settlement three’s a crowd, but coexisting is the only option as Howard remains adamant that a recent attack has made the world unlivable.
Or is it? The marketing department’s guessing game bleeds into the film as well, and while answers will be given viewers rarely get the chance to stay ahead. Our theories and conclusions often match those formed by the on-screen trio, making the tension tangible, the mystery interactive and our interest limitless. Much like The Hateful Eight, 10 Cloverfield Lane could also be every bit as affecting as a play. And if the producers, all of whom were involved with Cloverfield, were ever to transfer the film to the stage, it would be wise to keep the performers.
Why is it that, even now, Winstead remains under the radar? The North Carolina beauty has shown a knack for navigating any and all material sent her way, dramatic or comedic, and this claustrophobic tale might just be her best work to date. The actress utilizes her eyes, a feature zeroed in on while playing Scott Pilgrim’s love interest Ramona Flowers, to portray Michelle’s craftiness (for example, note the way her eyes seem to be working something out with every single line). That’s not to say her less-suspenseful bits aren’t up to par; Winstead and Gallagher complement each other’s performances with the latter’s genuine kindness evoking the former’s vulnerability. Not much of a stretch to think Winstead’s character is related to John Cusack’s Mike Eisner in 1408 – an abductee who allows wits to power the self, a character who can be as formidable as the film’s antagonistic forces. Now that’s a hero worth rooting for.
Deserving of special consideration is John Goodman, whose turn as the bunker's temperamental patriarch completes the mystery box by giving it thematic depth. Howard is the monster, which is clear enough from the trailers, but to have said monster played by the living emobodiement of a "teddy bear" makes this well-supplied and well-decorated bunker all the more uneasy, ambiguous, and nerve-racking. And while the beast does go free repeatedly throughout the film (including one standout scene featuring Monopoly), Goodman maintains an eerie composure throughout. Like Michelle, it's entertaining seeing how Howard's lines masks his true intentions; like Winstead, Goodman's acting is at its finest here.
Despite the minimalist setting and budget, confinement is exactly the condition in which director Dan Trachtenberg thrives. Though this is only his first feature film, look no further than his earlier short based on Valve's Portal to get a sense for Trachtenberg's knack for visuals and storytelling. Under his supervision, this story of entrapment becomes a most enticing, menacing affair. And with the best supporting him – fluid camerawork from Jeff Cutter, Ramsey Avery's character-rich sets and a foreboding score courtesy of The Walking Dead's Bear McCreary – the helmer’s obvious talent comes to the fore in both moments of calm and chaos, all supported by the tight screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Whiplash's Damien Chazelle (from a first draft by Dan Casey).
But what about 10 Cloverfield Lane's connection to the similarly titled 2008 monster movie? After all, for many cinephiles, that seems to be the primary cause for concern. Is this simply the second in what is to become a long-running anthology series, or is there a more direct connection at play? Frankly, it's too early to tell. References to Tagruato and satellites are made here, but the bridge between two films – and Cloverfield’s justification as a franchise – remains a mirage. At least for now. (Then again, maybe Abrams already has it all sorted out).
It's unfortunate that many will likely deem 10 Cloverfield Lane unworthy of their time due to this (momentarily) missing link. While 10 Cloverfield Lane is hardly the most welcoming house on the block, it would none the less be unwise to miss this expertly concieved and precicesly crafted small-scale exercise that revels in thwarting expectations and turning knuckles white.