If you want to go into 10 Cloverfield Lane knowing nothing about it, stop reading. Seriously, why even click on this review? Here’s the short version: it’s great, and best viewed with as little information as possible. That’s not because of some big Shyamalan moment or because you don’t know which Star Trek character Benedict Cumberbatch is playing, but because a big part of the joy of the film is that neither you nor the protagonist have any idea what’s going on, and you have to figure it out together. One other important detail: this isn’t Cloverfield, so don’t expect it to be, and you’ll be good. Now go on. Go. Buy a ticket, enjoy, and then come back. We’ll still be here.
OK? OK. Here we go.
A young woman wakes up in a spare, unfamiliar room, with things on her body that weren’t there before. She does not know where she is, or how she got there, and the only person giving out information could be crazy, or lying, or telling the truth. The only certainties are the things that surround her, and the gut feeling that no one’s going to be around to save her, if saving is indeed what’s needed. So she goes about getting out of that room.
Everything in the above paragraph applies both to 10 Cloverfield Lane and to Portal, the game upon which director Dan Trachtenberg’s short film Portal: No Escape is based. While the comparisons seem inevitable—both films live and die by the ways in which their protagonists confront a new and threatening reality—pointing out their similarities is not, in any sense, a dig. There’s a world of difference between being a one-trick pony and having a knack, and in his taut, self-assured debut feature, Trachtenberg proves he’s got a knack for agency.
Forget any relationship to Cloverfield. 10 Cloverfield Lane is its own movie, and any connection to that other, more ostentatious Bad Robot joint is best seen as one more fun piece inside the mystery box, if not a red herring. It’s also a much better movie (and its predecessor ain’t half bad). So yes, keep an eye out for Slushos, but leave it at that. Approach 10 Cloverfield Lane on its own terms, let Trachtenberg and his top-notch cast (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr., and a ferocious John Goodman) yank you into their world, and try not to sweat through your clothes.
Warning: very minor spoilers below. Think names, adjectives, and a few details.
That opening comparison to Portal isn’t important solely because of the Trachtenberg connection. Watching 10 Cloverfield Lane feels a bit like playing a video game, except the character you’re steering has a mind of her own. It’s a great mind, too: Michelle (Winstead), a fashion designer, opens the film by rushing out of both her apartment and her relationship. She’s clearly upset and in a real hurry, but the way in which she gets the hell out of dodge says much about who she is. It’s hectic, but efficient. She pauses for only a moment to feel some feelings—the barest of moments, really. And when she needs to open a drawer that’s missing a handle, there’s no letting of frustration, no hitting the drawer or shaking it or crying. She just grabs a screwdriver, jams the thing in there, and gets what she needs.
Like nearly every detail in the film, that screwdriver is not extraneous. Anything a person actually tells us is suspect, but the tangible things can’t be dismissed. So Michelle uses what’s around her, every step of the way. As with her feverish packing job in the opening moments, she doesn’t often stop in her tracks when confronted with an obstacle. She thinks, then she acts. A great deal of the movie hangs on Winstead’s performance, on running into these walls with her and watching as she attempts to navigate around them, knock them down, or just build herself a door. She’s far from your typical “final girl,” a fact that makes the film quietly but decidedly feminist. It’s a terrific performance of a terrific character, and Winstead, Trachtenberg, and the film’s screenwriters together create one of the most engaging heroines in recent memory. Things happen to her, but Michelle is never, ever passive. She happens right back.
But a good heroine needs a good antagonist, and Winstead and company hit the motherlode with Goodman as Howard. Too often relegated to unforgettable but brief supporting roles, Goodman is every bit as important to the film’s success as Winstead. It’s difficult to describe the brilliance of his performance without spoiling the fun of it, but suffice it to say that Goodman never makes it easy to pin him down—he’s by turns terrifying, empathetic, funny, unhinged, utterly rational, warm, cold, left, right, up, down, all around. You get the idea. What matters is that, at all times, you get the sense that something is not quite right with him. Are the hints that Howard has a bit of an issue with women just your everyday misogyny, or is there something more menacing behind the good ol’ boy exterior? Is his preparation just eccentricity, or a symptom of a more serious problem? Goodman never makes the answers easy, and thus the suspense is less about whether or not he’s a threat, and more about what kind of threat, and how dangerous that threat might be.
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The similarly excellent Gallagher Jr. rounds out the cast, completing a trio of thoughtful performers that never take themselves too seriously but keep the movie as tightly strung as nearly any thriller in recent memory. Any film would be lucky to have them, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is especially so, as one wrong note could capsize this smart little ship. It’s almost defiantly old-fashioned, spending most of its 105 minutes in a few small rooms that feel claustrophobic, but never dull. It’s a chamber piece, and a surprisingly funny one—a film that’s utterly tied to its performers, but each of whom resists the urge to showboat, even a little.
Of course, they have some help. The simple but remarkably clever production design, that helps to draw the audience in nearly as well as the characters themselves. Chipped nail polish tells the story. A welcome mat tells the story. Bear McCreary’s atmospheric score, which sometimes seems linked to Michelle’s own levels of fear or alertness, tells the story. A half-painted room, a shower curtain, a cute sign on the wall (“dinner options: take it, or leave it”)—they all help tell the story. Even the opening credits help to shoulder the load.
In fact, if 10 Cloverfield Lane has a fault, it’s that it’s often both too much and not quite enough. At times, it feels a bit like it’s checking fears off a master list: claustrophobia, check. Being a woman alone on a deserted road, check. Paranoia, check. Threat of global disaster, check. For the most part, that’s a good thing, as the film plays with the conventions of genre in a way that makes it not unlike The Cabin in the Woods (a film written, like the first Cloverfield, by Drew Goddard, who’s listed here as an executive producer.) Sure, much of the mystery centers on what, if anything, is outside those doors, but the film makes it clear that no monster or disaster could be more threatening than helplessness, fear, and the capacity of violence that exists inside each of us. Monsters are scary, yes. But strangers are worse.