John Carpenter initially thought his classic horror film Halloween could become a series of otherwise unconnected horror stories set around the eponymous holiday. Alas, Michael Myers proved too popular, and the one time that long-running property tried out the stand-alone idea (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) didn’t work out well enough to try again. But if you’ve been hoping someone else would take that great idea for a unique spin on franchise filmmaking and try it out, you’re in luck. J.J. Abrams and his production company Bad Robot have sprung a surprise on us. With the title of Matt Reeves’ great 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield in its name, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a stand-alone thriller only similar in that it’s built around a small-scale high-concept executed with simple and engaging plotting. If the Cloverfield brand will continue and become synonymous with cheap, resourceful, and entertaining sci-fi tinged tension, then, based on the evidence at hand, count me in.
The setup is this. A woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) crashes her car in the middle of nowhere and wakes up chained to a makeshift hospital bed in what appears to be an empty anonymous basement (and with no reception, naturally). Soon an imposing older man (John Goodman) walks in. He’s her captor and self-appointed caretaker, intimidating and odd even before he informs her that he’s also her savior. You see, they’re in his doomsday bunker. He claims to have snatched her from the wreckage of her accident and allowed her to stay with him, locked away from a world that has fallen into radioactive or biological warfare, or maybe both. She’s not so sure he’s right, and even when the bunker’s other occupant, a nice young man (John Gallagher Jr.), corroborates the story, she’s still not so sure what’s going on. The good thing is the audience doesn’t know either. What follows is a measured mind game as the woman attempts to discover the truthfulness of her situation. Best-case scenario: a madman prepper has kidnapped her. Worst-case scenario: it really is the end of the world.
With a hook so intriguing, and a three-person cast of uniform excellence, the movie would be foolish to let all that go to waste. In its tiny setting, impeccably set-designed with rows of nonperishable food items, incongruously homey placemats and knickknacks, and bookcases overflowing with Tom Clancy novels (a low-key funny touch), the three characters maneuver around each other, pressing advantages, keeping secrets, and jockeying for power. Can we trust anyone? What are their motives? And what’s really outside? The answers are slyly and slowly teased out by screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, relative newcomers, with Damien Chazelle, an Oscar nominee for Whiplash, although this is closer in tone to his script for the pianist-held-hostage-mid-concert thriller Grand Piano. Director Dan Trachtenberg makes a slick, competent debut – a fan film based on the video game Portal was the most prominent item on his résumé before this – by letting his craft play subtly while trusting the writing, the mystery, and the cast to carry the picture.
A reasonably clever claustrophobic thriller – it’s practically an inadvertent B-movie echo of Room – 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its time, bit by bit building the setups for a string of payoffs. It earns this patience by sticking so closely to a sympathetic performance by Winstead. We don’t know much about the character and don’t learn much more, but she brings such an innately appealing presence, warm and capable, smart and scared, that it’d be difficult not to care about her suffering. Add to that a sweetly odd Gallagher Jr. and a simmering, unpredictable Goodman (a convincing, human-scale monster) you’re looking at a trio of fine actors who build a fine, prickly atmosphere on which Trachtenberg can hang the film’s deliberate escalation of unease and suspense. It’s a sturdy guessing game making for an entertaining 95 minutes or so, deflating only in its disappointing conclusion, which goes about 10 minutes further, explaining away ambiguities with overly literal and predictable action, effects, and unsatisfying late breaking twists. Even so, for a modest feature of chills and thrills, it’s a passably good time.