10 Cloverfield Lane

Posted by Joel Copling on March 10, 2016

The dynamic at the center of "10 Cloverfield Lane" (a title for a film that only peripherally has anything to do with the superb 2008 film that shares one of the words of its title--a news report on the radio, for instance, as well as possibly the climactic answer to the film's established riddle, though even that is uncertain) has do with simple decorum, even if the conflict centers on a woman's abduction. She was the victim of a car crash that nearly killed her. She wakes up chained to a pipe in the windowless room of a bunker below her captor and/or savior's farm. There has been an attack, he says, whether from the nuclear capabilities of another country or from extraterrestrial forces, he does not know.

The air, he says, is unbreathable. It could be a year or two or, for all he knows, longer. The point is that Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the woman who was in the car crash only to find herself in an even worse predicament, has to stay put for her safety. No, she cannot call her family. No one outside of his farm is alive. The question, then, becomes whether we can trust this man. He is a conspiracy theorist and a survivalist. The bunker has stacks upon piles upon boxes of food and water supply, a personal area that is off-limits unless he gives explicit approval and is present even for bathroom trips, and a fully functional living room, complete with fish tank, movie collection, and small kitchen.

The digs might be nice, but we are given no reason to trust Howard's (John Goodman) word on anything under the sun (the figurative star, of course, as the real thing cannot be seen from this confined space). Goodman's performance is clever and unnerving in the way he constantly is able to find ways (helped along by screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle) to establish sympathy that is then promptly demolished for a character whose head is not a very safe space. He despises humorous conversation that lasts too long at the dinner table. An innocent game of Taboo (the one during which one player must guess the word on the other player's card within a set time limit) turns to sinister innuendo when it seems a plan concocted by Michelle and the bunker's third inhabitant Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard in building the structure, to escape could have been discovered by Howard. He is simply either a broken man (telling a tale of woe regarding a dead daughter) or a psychotic one.

The screenwriters, director Dan Trachtenberg (whose partnership with cinematographer Jeff Cutter brings out the harsh compositions of the bunker in a way that is never suffocating), and composer Bear McCreary (whose score is as clever in misdirection as the screenplay) allow us to form our own opinion through the constant, nervy possibility that, even if Howard is telling the truth about what awaits them outside the bunker's stronghold, he's still a dangerous, possessive man. For her part, Winstead is a sympathetic presence as a resourceful woman who is a lot more perceptive than Howard (who seems to have an overtly traditional view on the gender gap) might think, and Gallagher is solid and amusing as a naive man who has never traveled farther out of his house than his county and swallows Howard's personal history without question.

It is a chamber drama that milks the tension of its captivity narrative, Hitchockian in the way we are always right beside the characters in their series of revelations and attempted escapes, for all its worth. And then the climax arrives, and the director and screenwriters offer a sequence of events, largely wordless (Only three words are uttered--one an annoyed four-letter profanity, the other a pair that Winstead had to have ad-libbed on the spot to break tension) and breathlessly executed. Yet strangely, the film seems to strain to connect the events that proceed this sequence to a supernatural occurrence that is solved almost immediately upon being introduced. It's a misstep for "10 Cloverfield Lane," which is still nevertheless an effectively compact chiller.

Film Information

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Michelle), John Goodman (Howard), John Gallagher Jr. (Emmett).

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg and written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle.

Rated PG-13 (thematic material including frightening threat with violence, brief language).

105 minutes.

Released on March 11, 2016.