The Mystery Box Meets Superb Indie Thriller
Director Dan Trachtenberg and producer J.J. Abrams’ 10 Cloverfield Lane has been causing buzz in the lead-up to its debut thanks to its enigmatic marketing and lack of spoilers – a hallmark of Abrams’ dedication to his signature “mystery box” style of film production, which has been used to varying degrees of effect on Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and more. Here, Abrams’ tactic finds its greatest triumph, as 10 Cloverfield Lane is an effective and taut thriller whose shrouded nature makes its unfolding mysterious all the better.
First things first, be warned, 10 Cloverfield Lane has absolutely nothing to do with the 2008 Cloverfield, which told the story of a group of people trying to survive a monster attack on New York through the found footage medium. The continuation of the Cloverfield name has more to do with both films’ small focus on human characters within a larger narrative and mystery box marketing, rather than a plot. Those looking to learn more about the kaiju story of the first will find themselves waiting, waiting, and ultimately disappointed with what unfolds in 10 Cloverfield Lane. But that isn’t the point of the film here. The sooner you rid yourself of those expectations, the more you will enjoy this film.
10 Cloverfield Lane follows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman who is involved in a nasty car crash, only to wake up in the bomb shelter of a man named Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that the outside world has been destroyed and the only way to survive is to stay inside with him. Joining them is Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), who believes Howard’s story and is ready to ride out the possible apocalypse underground for the coming years. But Howard is clearly unhinged and Michelle is determined to find out the truth. But what is real and what is the work of a mad man?
Saying much than that would spoil the twists and turns that propel 10 Cloverfield Lane and are responsible for much of its tension and terror. Indeed, the late reveal of this film’s existence and its marketing tactics were crafted to maintain that mystery. Cloverfield is told from Michelle’s perspective from beginning to end. We’re trapped down there with her, discovering more about her fellow residents and the outside world at the same time that she does. Trachtenberg’s direction traps you alongside his lead, experiencing her confusion, terror, and triumph in order to create a stronger bond between character and audience. Claustrophobically tight closeups and a smart decision to layout every inch of the shelter create a constricted and realistic space for its central drama to play out. Tension rises and falls throughout and only brief snatches begin to fall into monotony before the next thrilling moment arrives, but its greatest moments of terror contingent upon each character’s distrust of one another, leading to a more human and more immediate sense of fear throughout, despite the potential sci-fi apocalypse that looms outside the shelter.
But all this tension and mystery would die on the vine without top tier performances to carry its character-focused story. The dueling performances of Winstead and Goodman are what propel this thriller and both leads put in a serious acting showcase throughout.
As Michelle, Winstead creates a proactive and sympathetic heroine who acts as both audience surrogate and fully formed lead character. While 10 Cloverfield Lane chooses to leave many pieces of her past life a mystery, Michelle is thoroughly compelling and fascinating. Winstead mixes vulnerability with steadfastness to create an inspiring protagonist whose decisiveness, intelligence, and resourcefulness are on display throughout. Rather than succumb to the tropes that often haunt female protagonists or horror movie survivors (and Cloverfield most certainly incorporates elements of the horror genre), Michelle is either operating at the same intelligence level as the audience or is several steps ahead in her planning, making for a heroine whose struggle against oppression is exciting and inspiring throughout.
Playing opposite her is Goodman’s even more layered and often terrifying Howard. Given that Cloverfield is told as a mystery, the biggest questions come from Howard himself, whose unstable and opaque nature cause both Michelle and the audience to question the validity of everything they are told. Goodman’s performance intertwines both a creeping dread and a sense of compassion that constantly swirl beneath his surface. Wisely, Trachtenberg and Goodman consistently subvert expectations with his character throughout, creating a performance that both frightens and delights in surprising ways. A longtime character actor whose performances can capture both charming everymen and rage-fueled madmen, Goodman works the full spectrum of his range as Howard for a captivating and undeniable performance.
Also taking part in all the bunker shenanigans is John Gallagher, Jr. as Emmet, who crafts a fine performance as a supporting character to both sides. While Gallagher, Jr. makes Emmet into a believable and unique face within the narrative, his role is clear – the third leg to stabilize this story. With only two performances, Cloverfield could not sustain its tension and the clash between its two leads would grow stale long before the end. Here, Emmet works as the middle ground between the two and a voice of greater insight into the narrative, but Gallagher, Jr. has little to work with beyond those functions.
If there is anything about the actual film itself that will divide audiences, it is the resolution of the story. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that there are concrete answers given about what is actually happening on the surface. The truth of these matters will surely strike each viewer differently, as the ambiguity of the vast majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane is ultimately brushed aside for concrete answers and character resolution. That resolution in and of itself is most important for Winstead’s character and the themes of oppression and survival that run throughout, even if the finale does feel like a completely different film.
But even its divisive ending provides greater ideas to sift through and a new lens to use in rewatching the film, adding more layers to the narrative in the process. But through it all, 10 Cloverfield Lane remains a superbly efficient and effective thriller that is a must watch for anyone who loves to be kept guessing from beginning to end.