Just so you don’t wander into a theater expecting 10 Cloverfield Lane to be another stomping-monster-on-the-loose faux documentary like JJ Abrams’ 2008 Cloverfield, be warned: It’s a sequel, sure, but only in spirit. It’s also, for what it sets out to do, a much better movie.
Produced by Abrams, this new one, shrewdly and intelligently directed by first-timer and Abrams protégé Dan Trachtenberg, is a tight, claustrophobic nail-biter in which a Louisiana woman leaves her husband, survives one hell of a car crash and awakens manacled to a bed in the basement bunker of a farmer who scraped her from the wreckage. She doesn’t want to be there but she shares the well-stocked shelter, buried way down deep below a farmhouse, with a sweet local blue collar handyman who helped build the bunker and who fought his way in for his own survival. It seems the world above is blanketed by post nuke-attack radioactive fallout, survivors are few and the earth is uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Sure, that sounds ominous (if suspicious) and sure, the place is stocked with a jukebox, jigsaw puzzles and artificial flowers, but the two visitors/hostages want out—and fast.
What follows is a Twilight Zone-style chamber piece, a sturdy 3-hander with the best action, revelations, betrayals, nervous laughs and twists playing out in a single location. 10 Cloverfield Lane is smart, expertly made, tense and twisty as hell. It’s also superbly acted. John Goodman plays the farmer (survivalist? Savior? Crackpot conspiracy theorist? Alien invasion weirdo?) and he’s as threatening and unpredictable as he is funny. It’s his best work in decades, and that’s saying something. He’s matched beat for beat by the terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as spikey and likable a heroine as you could hope for.
The script, nicely balancing psychological horror and the supernatural, is the work of Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (who was going to direct until Whiplash moved into first position). It’s a credit to director Trachtenberg, in a remarkably self-assured feature directing debut, that he lets the actors, including John Gallagher (The Newsroom), make a good script even better. Well, until the last 10 minutes, anyway: That’s about the time the movie shape-shifts awkwardly to link itself up to the Cloverfield universe. The horror show in the basement has it all over the horror show back on earth.