10 Cloverfield Lane is predicated on a beautifully simple catch 22: I am trapped in a room with psychopath but if I leave said room, I will most certainly die. The only safe solace in a decimated post-apocalyptic world, a bunker shared with a dangerous captor named Howard (a never-better, totally Oscar-worthy John Goodman), is indeed no safe solace at all. To hostage Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), this post-op lion’s den houses clearly seems to house a hulking threat; a man who percolates with such clear-eyed ferocity, unwavering mania and steadfast paranoia that the probably poisonous air outside seems an amenable option. But then again, what if he’s not a psychopath after all?
As the tectonic plates of history shift, is it not those who hold desperately onto their bygone beliefs (the world being flat or Gods demand ending human sacrifice for instance) who find themselves aligned with the captives and not the captors? Those who become the victims of history rather than those that pen its annals. On the one hand, all Michelle needs to do is open the bunker door and she’ll be outside. She’ll be “free”.
To respond to her situation with the logic of the internet age however is to risk life and and limb. If Howard is to be believed, just one huff of the otherwise balmy air awaiting her outside will lead to a quick and painful death. After taking this sobering talk with all the understanding of the teenage runaway, Michelle finds her physical restraints freed, though psychologically, she’s more hostage than ever. Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) is the dim-witted but well-meaning wrinkle complicating the issue further insofar as he actually fought his way into Howard’s bunker after what he described as nothing less than a cataclysmic event. Blinding flashes and nuclear sunrises. Doomsday stuff.
This is the brilliantly elementary predicament presented in the J.J. Abrams produced quasi-sequel/mostly spinoff effort, a dazzling cross-genre thriller that maintains white knuckle suspense and captivating performances for its radiant 105 minutes. Their mentally oxidizing rub leads to sequences dripping with crafty psychological tension that clips along with perfect pacing before it explodes into lavishly decorated action beats. In this capacity, 10 Cloverfield Lane is that improbably rare cinematic experience that pulls off that phenomenal feat of having its cake and eating it too – that is equally smart and thrilling, satisfying our bloodlust and higher processing speeds both.
The diamond-shiny spec script from Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken has the kind of smack-you-in-the-face obvious narrative thrust that so many lesser thrillers would kill for, given over to exactly the right brand of fledgling directorial talent in Dan Trachtenberg and hand-delivered to a pitch perfect trio of actors performing at the tip top of their ability. Each element has been whittled down towards its most mercifully concise, perfect form, leaving the narrative fat to crackle on the cutting room floor like Howard’s radiation-blasted hogs festering outside the bunker doors.
It helps that Damien Chazelle, who wrote JK Simmons to an Academy Award for his sublime work on Whiplash, onboarded the project as a screenwriter after Campbell and Stuecken sequestered the monstrous DNA of their story into its malevolent form, lending his whip-smart sensibilities and clever eye for situational tension in spades. Between them, Campbell and Stuecken have such vanilla-flavored tripe as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Van Helsing to their names but in Chazelle, they mine gold.
Verbal lashings from Goodman’s Howard leads to holdouts of savage discomfort and dry-mouthed anticipation – not dissimilar from the verbal war tactics of Whiplash’s Fletcher. Gallagher Jr. and Winstead, each of whom is more underrated than the last, hold their own against Goodman, offering complex multidimensional characters that find so much more depth than any character ever did in the original Cloverfield. The trio spar with care and the delicate game of cat and mouse that mounts between them is almost always giddy goodness of the board game variety. Perhaps the greatest magic trick of 10 Cloverfield Lane it that as it builds towards its climax, you’ll almost forget its muddy association with the 2008 found footage monster movie. Still yet, Trachtenberg’s own brand of monster movie is all the greater for its ability to create something unique, from a storytelling, directorial and stylistic standpoint, while still feeling spiritually aligned with that cult favorite. At once, Trachtenberg’s film is not beholden to the giant footprints that started this Cloverfield franchise down its very peculiar path, but that gives it the opportunity to become something far greater than its predecessor. And far greater it is.
CONCLUSION: Bizarre by traditional sequel standards, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is nonetheless an immaculate work of genre craftsmanship, a bustling coup de grace of wit, intensity and phenomenal performances with John Goodman perhaps giving the best of his already standout career. A real “bucket” of winning.