In the first minute of 10 Cloverfield Lane, director Dan Trachtenberg has established half of the lead’s base character traits (Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle): a slight pan to a wall with sketches of dresses, an insert shot of a phone wallpaper, a shot of untidy clothes. Over the next hour and forty minutes, economy becomes the film’s key virtue as revelations are inched out, only to the point where the fog can slightly recede from the next narrative beat on the horizon.
Coming after the conceptually and technically ambitious short film Portal: No Escape, Trachtenberg has transitioned to features with the most ease of any filmmaker in years. It’s too early to try and define his filmmaking style, but it’s hard not to think of latter-day Jeff Nichols in Trachtenberg’s crisply defined cuts and minimal underlining of visuals.
10 Cloverfield Lane is designed as a dreaded “mystery box,” a convention that originated as a point of excitement with J.J. Abrams’ fastidiously engineered marketing campaigns before evolving into a fundamental criticism of modern Hollywood’s reliance on “Gotcha” moments. True to form, the narrative beats of 10 Cloverfield Lane do unspool more than progress, but the difference is that they’re always based in character.
At its base, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a chamber thriller — a small ensemble piece that finds movement in dialogue and visual information rather than plot. It’s a feature length wink to an audience that is as inured to pouncing horror films as it is to the expectations of surprise in modern Hollywood productions.
And while like clockwork, eventually that “mystery box” is set to pop open, as 10 Cloverfield Lane forces its audience to sit still in anticipation. It’s an objectively bathetic sensation to wait for this surprise, and one that will hopefully make the second viewing feel less like table-setting. The reveal is, to say the least, polarizing in its destabilizing tonal and structural shift, but it’s a necessary concession from both a brand standpoint and as an implication of a larger world.
But in between, the three-act structure is presented in a way that refuses to sideline character development, even as the plot picks moments to jut forward. The best scenes come with the pronged understanding of long-term consequences and the individual moment in time. And even if 10 Cloverfield Lane is remembered as a one-off spinoff, it feels generally subversive in foregrounding characters who exist as more than simply cogs in a Rube Goldberg machine.
As with most films of its ilk, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s premise is minimal. And after the ruthlessly efficient opening, Michelle wakes up in an underground bunker with two men, Howard (John Goodman) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who each claim that the world is affected by a deadly disease. That’s really just a spring board for an ensemble piece whose only real constant is an inventive penchant for mutating the stakes and circumstances of the plot.
Winstead has long deserved her time as the action heroine of our time, starring in the misbegotten The Thing remake, and more recently in the stunningly assured indie Faults. Here, she acquits herself as the best human swiss army knife and survivalist since Sharni Vinson in You’re Next. She refuses to simply wait to be some princess rescued from a metaphorical castle and just waiting for the opportunity to take her life into her own hands. Sly without losing her empathy, Winstead knows how to infuse even the most arbitrary tasks with a sense of character.
A former Navy man weened on a potent cocktail of persistent fear of foreign nuclear weapons and an unwavering devotion to “duty,” Howard is a startlingly believable Doomsdayer who can jump from red scare paranoia to martians with steel nerves and a controlled, hushed cadence. He’s a person who would be dismissed on the street as the “gentleman” with the strange conspiracy theories, but he’s placed in the unusual place of rationality.
While Goodman practically spits out at the end of a rant about his hyper-cautious nature (“crazy is building an ark after the flood comes”), his character is far from a caricature in both his unexamined expectations of domesticity towards women and his grating sense of entitlement as a savior of Michelle and Emmett. Like a mundane version of Kathy Bates from Misery, he’s demanding of attention and gratitude in casually sadistic ways, and 10 Cloverfield Lane carries that to its absolute breaking point through Goodman’s alternating hospitality and erupting rage.
Flexing the same laconic, hangdog star power that drove his performance in Short Term 12, Gallagher Jr.’s character is just as likely to mix up the Koreas as play the hero, but he’s deeply compelling all the same. His dialogue occasionally threatens to act a little bit like a cliff notes version of his entire motivations as a character, but he’s a perfect foil to Goodman’s deadly serious Howard. He’s an unabashed cornball, prone to rambling tangents about childhood games, dad jokes and laments about his lost future. And paired as a platonic parallel to Winstead, they have exceptional chemistry as epitomized in a sprawling conversation between a wall about their past purposes.
Written by green screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and recent wunderkind Damien Chazelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane has a surprising spark for comedic dialogue with throwaway clever quips and a sense for escalating drama without losing a sense of the characters as the plot really starts moving. But even that plot is kept vacuum-sealed, streamlining the narrative until it’s been cleaved of any possible fat. Taken as a genre film, this is startling and urgent, but as a blockbuster, it’s a beacon of hope — a reminder that Hollywood can still make a small-scale story feel like its own universe.
Michael Snydel (@snydel) is a writer based in Chicago who has been obsessed with film and film reviews since he could read. For the first decade of his life, he could bizarrely tell you the rating of nearly film that came out. He now tries to devote his time to less pointless things. He writes regularly for The Film Stage and has written for Paste Magazine and The Dissolve (RIP).