Opening this week:
10 Cloverfield Lane—After a car crash on a rural Louisiana road, a young woman named Michelle wakes up imprisoned in an underground bunker equipped for doomsday. Her survivalist host/captor Howard tells her that there’s been an attack—maybe nuclear, maybe chemical, maybe alien, he’s not sure—that the air outside is toxic, and that they’re stuck underground for at least a year or two.
At first Michelle thinks Howard’s crazy, and tries several times to escape, but indications start to accumulate that maybe something apocalyptic really did happen outside. Corroborating Howard’s story, for instance, is the bunker’s uninvited third resident, Emmet, a young local guy who helped Howard build the shelter, and forced his way in, to Howard’s dismay, when he saw disaster starting to strike. All the same, over time Michelle also sees signs that Howard may not be entirely trustworthy.
This chamber-piece thriller, directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a script by John Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, is being marketed as somehow very vaguely a companion piece to the 2008 found-footage monster picture Cloverfield. Any such connection seemed tenuous at best to me, but this isn’t a complaint, as 10 Cloverfield Lane is, on the whole, a stronger, more memorable movie than Cloverfield. The new film, for one very welcome difference, unfolds in conventional narrative rather than through the overused device of found footage.
Better still, this set-bound movie is of necessity driven by dialogue and acting—and, to some extent, by an old-school, high-tension score by Bear McCreary—and it’s anchored on the masterly turn of John Goodman as Howard. Aside from an occasional angry outburst, Howard is soft-spoken, patient, even kindly in a brusque sort of way, and he has moments, like his purse-lipped little smile when he and his guests sit down to dinner, that even suggest ironic humor. Yet a terrible, longing mania keeps seeping out of his eyes and from the corners of his mouth, signaling his scary potential to turn monstrous. Goodman doesn’t hit a false note, and his riveting performance gives the impression of effortlessness, of not breaking a sweat.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from the third version of The Thing and Tarantino’s Death Proof, among others, makes Michelle a courageous and resourceful heroine—her frightened but never paralyzed reactions win the audience’s admiration. And John Gallagher, Jr. is touching as the dim but decent Emmet; the bond he forms with Michelle is nicely underplayed and convincing.
Near the end, 10 Cloverfield Lane finally gives us a look outside. Without going into details, suffice to say that, for ten minutes or so, it turns into a different sort of movie, and, though entertaining, a lesser one, I’d say. It’s a testament to the claustrophobic force of 10 Cloverfield Lane that it still feels liberating, almost joyous, just to get out of that hole in the ground.