10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)
Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Such is the set-up for 10 Cloverfield Lane, an extremely clever sort-of-sequel to the 2008 hit Cloverfield, itself a nifty little gem of a found-footage mockumentary in which a monstrous alien destroyed New York (and maybe more). That film had no stars and was shot in a shaky-cam home-video style; here, there are no such cinematography tricks, with a much more traditional use of camera. What we get, instead, are three very strong (and relatively well-known) actors – Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Faults), John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis) and John Gallagher, Jr. (Short Term 12) – plus a super-smart script and some superb lighting and editing techniques worthy of the best horror films. Eventually, there are also some splendid visual effects, but perhaps the best effect of all is the site of John Goodman boogying to the jukebox in his bunker.
Goodman plays Howard, a survivalist nut who may (or may not) be as crazy as we think. When first we meet him, it is after a catchy opening in which we watch Michelle (Winstead) pack up her life, leave an engagement ring on the table, drive off, and then tumble off the road in an accident. She wakes up with an IV in her arm and her leg bandaged and shackled. The heavy door to her cell opens, and there’s Howard, looming over her with a fiery gleam in his eye. He tells her that he saved her life, and that everyone in the world above is dead. The cause? Some kind of attack – maybe the Russians or the North Koreans, or even extraterrestrials – that has contaminated the air. Better to get used to life in his custom-made shelter. Michelle, who earlier had wanted nothing more than to flee her life, now wants back in. But how?
Trapped underground with her is Emmett, who helped build the place and fought his way through the exterior hatch as Howard was closing it. He’s sweet, but injured. Good company, perhaps (he’s much closer in age to Michelle than is Howard), but not much protection. For a while, however, they all make do. Howard has loaded the bunker with games, puzzles and movies. Not entirely satisfied that he’s not insane, Michelle, leg injury and all, does try to break out (they hear noises above), but what she sees on the threshold stops her cold. Perhaps there is method to Howard’s madness, after all.
What first-time feature-director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted here is a film that takes its time, yet is utterly gripping. There are true surprises in store – even if you have seen the previous film – and a very satisfying ending (which concludes the story while pointing, of course, to future installments). All three actors, at the peak of their game, hold our attention; we feel their mounting claustrophobia even as they do their best to deal with it. If you’re looking for a movie that is both a great psychological thriller and great science fiction, then 10 Cloverfield Lane is just the ticket.