Lock a few characters into a tight space for the majority of your movie and you might as well make the movie itself tight as well. That seems to be the thinking behind 10 Cloverfield Lane, a very smart and well-executed mystery/thriller about an unlikely trio holed up in a bunker during what may or may not be some sort of chemical attack on U.S. soil. The title conjures memories of another Bad Robot production with JJ Abrams’ name attached to the marketing, the 2008 found footage pic about a giant monster terrorizing New York, but this new pic appears to share no more with its titular predecessor than the promise of launching yet another potentially exciting directorial career.
Cloverfield helmer Matt Reeves has since moved on to the Planet of the Apes franchise and is currently at work on another sequel in the effectively rebooted series. Who knows what the future holds for 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg, but he certainly seems to be a great find. In his feature debut, he generates crackling suspense, cleverly teases out a two-fold mystery, gets an absolutely fantastic performance out of screen vet John Goodman, and never loses his confident grip on the pacing of a story that should feel like a stretched-out short, but doesn’t.
Trachtenberg gets help, of course. The screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle is razor-sharp and arguably the best single contributing factor to making the movie work. It’s a classically structured script with loads of foreshadowing elements in play and various callbacks to sneakily unveiled tidbits of info that never feels overly mechanical in motion. The exposition and crucial character beats are doled out efficiently and effectively so the story builds momentum and the plot remains mysterious even as we’re convinced that the writers and Trachtenberg are giving away loads of clues all the time.
It’s a tough high-wire act to sustain for a feature length running time and everyone involved seems to understand and acknowledge that without allowing the pressure to get to them. In addition to the big question of what, if anything, is going on outside the bunker, there’s the bonus problem of trying to suss out the intentions of Goodman’s possibly paranoid bunker builder Harold.
Deciphering whether Harold means well or ill is up to protagonist Michelle (a great Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who survives a startling car crash and wakes up in an unfurnished, prison-like room of the bunker. She immediately assumes she’s been abducted, but Harold insists in his blustery way that he saved Michelle from a gruesome fate by hauling her from the wreckage of her car and bringing her back to the one safe spot in the area.
Michelle remains skeptical, as she should, and the script never makes the mistake of dumbing down the characters to further forward the plot. Instead, we get convincing motivation and considerably good decision making, a rarity in thrillers, especially those that need to fill nearly two hours with the actions of just a handful of characters in a small space.
That space is visually interesting as well, as much as an outfitted bunker can be, and the main living space coyly speaks to Harold’s quirkiness while giving us either a revealing or misdirecting hint of who he is. At the very least, the space looks fun to hang out in if you have nothing else to do and Trachtenberg takes advantage of that by staging an upbeat montage sequence where Michelle, Harold, and laidback comic relief goofball Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) play classic board games and watch VHS movies while tunes blast from Harold’s vintage jukebox.
For a moment, everyone gets along and Michelle’s lurking paranoia retreats into the background. This makes it all the more intriguing when new clues about what’s really going on come to light and the characters have to make tough decisions and discoveries. There’s a lot of teasing going on here and elements of the mystery are likely best identified as red herrings in retrospect, but even if Trachtenberg and the screenwriters are trying to throw us off, they still tie each piece of information to the characters so there remains some considerable dramatic resonance.
Getting to know what’s going on outside the bunker is clearly what the movie is building to, but the pic’s cool smarts are woven so carefully into the aforementioned tightness of physical and narrative space that the story inevitably sags a little when it comes to an entertaining, though hurried and farfetched finale. It’s easily the weakest chunk of the entire experience and a bit of a letdown after the events in the bunker.
Still, it’s ultimately a forgivable attempt to provide answers and action after all the preceding tease-filled fun. It doesn’t take away from how good the rest of the movie is and it pays off what is likely considered promised by the Cloverfield title, so an argument for its necessity can be made. Mainly, though, this is about crowd-pleasing entertainment executed in a manner that’s rare among the currently constant spate of blockbusters. With a modest budget, a single location, and just three solid actors, Trachtenberg spins a refreshingly lean yarn that plots its twists convincingly. It’s a puzzle where the fun is not in seeing the completed picture, but rather in appreciating the assembly.