The 2008 found footage movie, “Cloverfield,” showcased producer J.J. Abrams at his secretive best, flying completely under the radar until the mysterious release of its buzzworthy teaser. No one imagined that Abrams could pull off the same trick again, yet that’s exactly what he’s done with the intriguingly titled “10 Cloverfield Lane,” this time with the whole world watching. It was an ingenious but risky marketing stunt for a movie scheduled to hit theaters only eight weeks after the surprise announcement, and it worked like a charm. While the film will undoubtedly frustrate those expecting any sort of substantial connection to its namesake, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a well-crafted thriller that deserves the added exposure its title brings, even if that affiliation threatens to overshadow the story itself.
The movie opens on a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she frantically packs a suitcase with some clothes and personal belongings before leaving town to escape a toxic relationship. While driving through the night, Michelle is blind-sided by a truck and knocked unconscious, eventually waking to find herself chained to a wall and treated for her injuries. Michelle immediately fears the worst, but her captor Howard (John Goodman) insists that he saved her life by pulling her from the wreckage and then bringing her back to his fallout shelter following some kind of massive chemical attack that has rendered the outside world uninhabitable. Though Michelle is understandably skeptical of the slightly deranged Howard, she’s able to corroborate his story with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a good-natured construction worker who broke his arm while fighting his way into the bunker. Forced to accept the possibility that Howard’s nutty conspiracy theory might actually be true, Michelle can’t shake the feeling that he’s still hiding something.
That lack of trust is what drives the film’s central mystery, which is incredibly effective in its simplicity. Not a single moment is wasted, and the chilling uncertainty of Michelle’s predicament – locked in a bunker with a couple strangers as the threat of something much worse simmers in the background – keeps you engaged throughout its smartly paced 105-minute runtime. It’s nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat stuff that’s heightened by the claustrophobic setting and nonstop tension. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg wisely plays things close to his chest, slowly revealing character motivations and shocking plot turns as the movie effortlessly skips from one genre to the next.
Staged as a three-handed chamber piece between Winstead, Goodman and Gallagher Jr., the film hinges on the performances of its cast. Thankfully, they’re all fantastic in their roles, particularly Goodman, who steals the show as the creepy, domineering Howard; it’s a deliciously wicked turn that will make your skin crawl. You’ve never seen the veteran actor quite like this before, but by casting him against type, it strengthens the overall mystery that is so essential to the movie’s success. It also provides Trachtenberg with an interesting dilemma for his heroine, as Michelle must decide between which is the lesser of the two evils: the figurative monster that she’s trapped with inside the shelter, or the literal one potentially waiting for her outside.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is an impressive debut from Trachtenberg – a taut psychological thriller that’s dripping with mood and atmosphere. That is, until the 11th-hour twist comes along and nearly undoes all that good work with its abrupt change in tone. The film is weighed down so much by the expectations that come with using the “Cloverfield” name that when the big secret is finally revealed, it’s hard not to be disappointed. However, it’s a minor annoyance compared to how much the movie gets right, because for as divisive as the ending may be, “10 Cloverfield Lane” still manages to deliver a riveting cinematic experience that demonstrates the true power of Abrams’ “mystery box” philosophy.