The best way to approach 10 Cloverfield Lane is to put all that Cloverfield business out of your mind and enjoy the movie for what it is: a taut, expertly calibrated thriller, set almost entirely in cramped quarters, about three strangers trying to figure out whether they can trust each other.
The central protagonist is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a fashion designer who wakes up after a car accident chained to a cot in some sort of underground chamber. Howard (John Goodman), an anxious, worrisome man who brings her food on a tray as if she were a prisoner, tells her there’s been some kind of attack — a big one — and that everyone she knows is dead, the planet is either contaminated or poisoned by radiation, they will have to wait a year or two before it’s safe to go outside.
Who is responsible? Maybe the Russians, or maybe Martians, Howard speculates. “You think I sound crazy,” he tells Michelle after noticing how she’s looking at him. But there’s another man living in the shelter, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who doesn’t seem weird or troubled in any way, and who confirms Howard’s story. He tells Michelle he saw the attack – a big flash of red that consumed everything, like something you read about in the Bible – and he seems resigned to make the best of the situation and wait things out. What other choice is there?
First-time director Dan Trachtenberg doesn’t string you along: Within the first half-hour, Michelle confirms that something horrible has indeed happened to the world, and leaving the bunker to go outside would mean a ghastly death. Besides, Howard has stocked his bomb shelter with plenty of food and movies and books and board games, and there’s enough food to wait out the apocalypse. He even installed a shower curtain in the bathroom. He’s a thoughtful, generous guy. But something about him seems … off.
Goodman has played likable teddy bears and sinister cretins throughout his career. But he has rarely had the opportunity to play a character that is both of those things at once. Goodman’s performance is so effective — you keep changing your mind about him — that 10 Cloverfield Lane builds up a creepy aura of menace even though nothing seems to be happening. A scene in which the trio sit down for a dinner that goes from pleasant to psycho in a matter of seconds is a highlight.
Eventually, the movie begins to turn the screws, and Winstead is forced to take drastic action. I’m being vague here, because a big part of the film’s tension comes from not knowing what, exactly, Michelle’s dilemma is.
Unlike 2008’s Cloverfield, which was sold from the start as a found-footage movie about a giant monster attacking New York City, 10 Cloverfield Lane is being marketed as something more mysterious — it’s a sibling of that previous film but not a sequel. That turns out to be true, but the curiosity created by the ingenious trailers could backfire, leaving audiences asking, “Is that it?” 10 Cloverfield Lane is dark, nasty fun that gets better when you play it over in your head. But the plot holes seem even larger in hindsight, too. Just tamp down those expectations, then tamp them down some more.
‘10 Cloverfield Lane’
Rated PG-13 for vulgar language, violence, adult themes. 1:43. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.