J.J. Abrams and his famed "mystery box" have been kicking around for more than his Star Wars and Star Trek blockbusters. He's played the hand of total secrecy before with a pair of smaller monster flicks, Super 8 and the found footage thriller, Cloverfield, the latter the subject of sequel rumors for years after. 10 Cloverfield Lane is not that sequel, all titular appearances to the contrary. It is, in more ways than one, a totally different creature from Cloverfield; one that is frequently jarring, brilliantly controlled, and definitely worth going in blind.
10 Cloverfield Lane is at its core a tightly-wound three-person psychological thriller, but debuting feature director Dan Trachtenberg doesn't simply stick to those confines. The outside-the-box thinking begins early as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) tearfully breaks up with her husband and flees their home, only to fall victim to a bone-rattling car accident that resonates throughout the opening credits. She wakes up, bloody and chained in an ugly stone bunker, looking like the opening victim of a Saw movie. Moments later she's greeted by the hulking presence of Howard (John Goodman), who tells her she can't leave his underground bunker because the world has been destroyed outside, victim of some kind of attack. Immediately, her and our alarm bells go off. His story sounds crazy; he's talking about nuclear fallout and the air being unbreathable. But he's also surprisingly nice, offering her food, crutches for her busted up leg...of course it's always possible he's fattening her up for the kill....or keeping her around for something far worse.
They aren't alone, either; there's Howard's carpenter friend, Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.), who helped build the bunker and corroborates the story. Between him and Howard, it's Emmitt who comes across as more level-headed. Howard is a hard guy to pin down. Is he a total nutcase? Or is he being honest about some kind of apocalypse event? For all of his acts of kindness there's an outburst of pure rage. Couple his paranoia with the natural tension of being crammed in a tight space with two strangers and Howard could be dangerous whether he's telling the truth or not.
The best part of 10 Cloverfield Lane is trying to decipher the answers to the questions it raises; and the trio of screenwriters, including Oscar-nominated Whiplash writer Damien Chazelle, keep audiences on their toes by cleverly changing the questions at a moment's notice. A game of charades has Howard inadvertently revealing his negative perception of Michelle and women in general, but what caused him to feel that way? Individual moments like this that shed new light on these characters are what keep the story fresh, something that isn't easy to do in a single location setting. Trachtenberg shows incredible use of space and framing in such close quarters, capturing an uneasiness caused by a combination of claustrophobia, cheap furniture, and half-truths. But you'll laugh just as much as you'll cower in fear as Trachtenberg plays the audience's emotions like a fine-tuned guitar.
With only three major roles each performance's importance is amplified, and all of the stars are at their absolute best. The interesting thing about Goodman is how easily he shifts from cuddly teddy bear to complete psychotic. This is the same guy who played the lovable Dan Connor on Roseanne and The Big Lebowski's hair-trigger Walter Sobhak. His performance here combines elements of both to effectively disturbing degrees. Winstead has always been good at playing tough, enigmatic women, but here she's also wildly inquisitive and intuitive. There's the subtle suggestion of personal demons in Michelle's past, and Winstead, whose finest role was as an alcoholic in Smashed, brings a little bit of that addictive persona to her portrayal.
The less said about the ending the better, but suffice it to say the story's tight grip is loosened considerably. It's both a blessing and a curse, as the ultimate reveal is incredibly fun even though the answers prove less engaging than the mystery. Abrams has called 10 Cloverfield Lane a "blood relative" to its predecessor, which doesn't mean a heck of a lot. Whether the two films are truly connected doesn't really matter as long as we're allowed more regular visits to Cloverfield Lane.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5