Turning Dan Trachtenberg’s Valencia into a spinoff Cloverfield story was, in my opinion, wholly unnecessary. The connection is cheaply face-value and so horridly understated that fans of Matt Reeves’ original large-scale disasterpiece can’t help but feel cheated by such a slap-dash “sequel-ish” attempt. Which, unfortunately, is a real disappointment, because those people harping solely on mismanaged marketing schemes won’t be talking about what a dynamite directorial debut 10 Cloverfield Lane is for Trachtenberg, and what a thrilling post-apocalyptic nightmare he’s able to create. You won’t get more first-person shaky cam, or gigantic city-leveling monsters – which is just damn fine considering the tense survivalist story that unfolds.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, a woman who wakes up in a bullish man’s apocalypse bunker after getting into a horrendous automobile accident. The man, who introduces himself as Howard (John Goodman), explains that he saw Michelle’s car overturned and brought her back when the world went to shit outside.
Apparently, large flashes were seen in the distance, like nuclear explosions, and the fallout eradicated whatever survivors were left. Except for Howard, Michelle, and a local guy named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who fought his way in when the bombs first hit. Together, the trio spend their days playing Monopoly and eating spaghetti until the radiation becomes safe, but Michelle remains skeptical. Howard’s ticks suggest that not everything is as it seems, which only leads Michelle to believe she’s being spoon-fed lies as each day passes.
This is the brilliance of 10 Cloverfield Lane – it’s nothing you expect, and everything you want. Once again, the Cloverfield connection here is almost non-existent. For me, though, this made the actual story more richly inviting. Besides a trashed mailbox that sports the titular address, Trachtenberg is free to tell Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s intended story without interference.
The beauty of Trachtenberg’s vision is in an opening crash that grabs you by the throat, followed by a calculated tussle that squeezes tighter and tighter, as holding your breath becomes instinctual, and not by choice. 10 Cloverfield Lane is beautifully claustrophobic and expertly tense, as a billion paranoias are trapped in a tiny shed, buried underground and out of sight.
So much action plays out in this tiny, rustic bomb shelter, which represents a compartmentalized Hell from whence there’s no escape, and within which Michelle and Emmet are at the mercy of Howard’s ever-wavering temperament. Trachtenberg nails the balance of conspiracy wackiness and comforting preparedness in a way that never spoils a volcanic eruption of tension, followed by an even wilder actual ending. This is precision pacing that expert directors might mishandle, let alone a feature rookie, but Trachtenberg conducts the proceedings with confidence and psychological swagger to boot.
John Gallagher Jr., good on your roll, but I’m sorry – this review is all about John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Howard’s out-of-whack survivalist schtick is cold, monstrously intense and convincingly off-color where you don’t know whether to laugh at or fear his talk of alien worm creatures invading Earth. But Howard’s protective, oppressive tendencies towards Michelle blend kidnapper horror into Trachtenberg’s already genre-bending world. Goodman’s talents shine through at a dinner table scene where his character’s anger violently bursts off screen, or when he proclaims how problem solving puts him in a musical mood, or when he wheels out a vat of flesh-eating acid – winning absurdity on all fronts.
Yet Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the real stand-out here, as Michelle struggles against a captor who might or might not be saving her life. With no recollection of any WWIII strikes before she went unconscious, and accounting for Howard’s menacing quirks, Michelle pieces together enough of the bigger picture to push Howard’s buttons and unleash the true monster within.
Michelle doesn’t become a survivor in the process – she’s a survivor from the start, who fights back and bares her teeth through discomfort, manipulation and gender imprisonment. Winstead’s determination and iron will perfectly counterbalance Goodman’s brute dominance, as the two tango carefully, trying not to step on one another’s toes. This is a female role that features grit and guts, which Winstead is absolutely perfect for.
Moral of the story? 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a Cloverfield monster movie. Remove that thought from your head. Call the movie 10 Shamrockvalley Lane for all I care. Do whatever is necessary to eradicate any preconceptions about a film that deserves singular applause outside a franchise stage, even though we’ll undoubtedly get another blood-relative that connects all three Cloverfield entries together. Somehow. But until then, enjoy 10 Cloverfield Lane for what it is – an aggressive, tight-laced, white-knuckled slice of high-tension cinema paced without exhaustion or imbalance.
10 Cloverfield Lane is nothing that you'd expect, which ends up being its greatest and most alluring strength.