Dan Trachtenberg’s debut feature is a lean indie thriller dressed in a studio Hazmat suit.
Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.
10 Cloverfield Lane is pretty decent. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but when you’re supposedly following up a mediocre found-footage monster movie that no one, eight years later, was demanding a sequel for, that’s the headline you’re getting.
Truthfully, the two films don’t have much in common. If anything, walking in with memories of 2008’s Cloverfield may create expectations this one doesn’t have much interest in meeting. That new franchise tag is a double-edged sword; any curiosity about what producer J.J. Abrams and his Mystery Box builders are up to this time is likely offset by an “Ugh, really?” Even the cast — the very good trio of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr., and John Goodman — thought they were working on a low-budget thriller called Valencia until the rug was pulled on them, and us, with the appropriately mysterious teaser released on Super Bowl Sunday.
Gone, thankfully, is the dated (even in 2008) handheld aesthetic; we get no scenes of urban destruction; even to say whether there are monsters at all would constitute a spoiler, so I won’t. Instead, Lane is a tightly-written exercise in simplicity; many audiences may find themselves put off by how quiet and talky it actually is. Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman who, after leaving her boyfriend for unexplained reasons, is sideswiped on a winding Louisiana road; she wakes up chained to a wall, where Howard (Goodman) tells her that there’s been some kind of “attack,” welcome to my Doomsday Bunker, let’s hang out for a year or two.
If this feels like a modest episode of The Twilight Zone, that’s likely by design. Whatever monsters (or Russians, he says) are out there on the surface, dropping some kind of flesh-rotting chemicals (again, he says), the story first-time director Dan Trachtenberg is most interested in telling is about “the monsters within.” Is Howard on the level, or is he a psycho? How did Michelle really get here? How does the other guy, Emmett (Gallagher, Jr.), fit in? At first, Howard’s lack of straight talk (an Abrams hallmark) spurs multiple escape attempts from Michelle, but before long she comes to accept what the two men are telling her, and they begin to form a creepy makeshift family.
That said, 10 Cloverfield Lane is indeed a “blood relative” of its predecessor, as Abrams puts it, but that’s a nebulous bit of marketing-speak that tells you something while also telling you nothing. He and the Bad Roboteers have an idea to make a quasi-anthology, riding the wave of TV’s Fargo and American Horror Story to roll out a series of thematically-connected shoestring genre flicks, all building to…something, I suppose. This one, as written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken (with an assist from Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle), stands just fine on its own, a solid if unspectacular bit of B-movie screw-turning that plays just as well as a “bottle episode” of Cloverfield: The Series. The cinematography from Jeff Cutter maintains sharp use of geography, so that you always know what direction the threat is coming from.
Further, it’s the committed performances that manage to elevate Lane above its more mercenary objective. I confess to have taken John Goodman for granted for most of his career; he’s consistently great, and here he creates a frightening yet all-too-recognizable character in the conspiracy theorist Howard, tinging his more paternal aspects with just enough subterranean menace to keep you guessing. Winstead is equally terrific, easily rootable for her ingenuity and courage. It’s long past time the Scott Pilgrim star had a breakout role (The Thing remake sure wasn’t it), and whether she’s barely keeping it together through the most awkward “family dinner” ever, or crawling through air ducts barefoot like John McClane, Winstead’s anime-character eyes are always searching. If you buy any of the story’s twists, it’s because of how she sells them.
Though the film sports a couple of good startles, it’s never really scary, but still holds attention: in the age of bloated tentpole cinema, 10 Cloverfield Lane is to be applauded for its control and its economy of storytelling. Only the climax, when the film finally shows its hand as if to shrug that it had no other choice, leaves you wishing Trachtenberg was as fearless as his heroine.