Before directing blockbuster instalments of two of the world’s biggest science fiction franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars, J.J. Abrams produced a queasy found footage monster movie: 2008’s Cloverfield.
The break-out box office success was billed as Godzilla by way of The Blair Witch Project, following a group of New York hipsters who film each other freaking out while a huge and hideous alien creature goes about desecrating the Statue of Liberty.
In the lead-up to the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams (a producer) stressed that director Dan Trachtenberg’s debut feature film is not a sequel. Rather, Abrams says, it is a “blood relative” or “spiritual successor” – whatever the hell that means.
Where Cloverfield careened about all over the place, the frame as restless as its panic-struck characters, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tightly and at times terrifically controlled mystery chamber piece: Death and the Maiden meets The Twilight Zone.
Screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken tap into a zombie movie style dynamic, in the sense that internal group conflict plays out in a restricted space while larger external conflict rages outside. Or does it? The twist here is that uncertainty is cast over the external conflict. Is it real or the fantasies of a madman?
After a distressing phone call with her husband – enough to inform us she’s on the run and their marriage is shaky – Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) crashes her car. Her trip has a whiff of Janet Leigh busting out of town in Psycho. The birds-eye aerial view of her vehicle is Shining-esque.
Michelle awakens to discover she is chained to the wall of a bunker, Saw style. Her captor Howard (John Goodman) emerges and announces he actually saved her: not from a burning vehicle but from the end of the world as we know it.
An apocalypse has occurred outside, he says, and maybe they might be able to emerge from his underground bunker in, oh, a year or two’s time. Is Howard lying or crazy? Another, younger, more sedate and sensible-sounding man (John Gallagher Jr.) is also with them and he seems to corroborate the story.
If what Howard is saying is accurate, his volatile huff-and-puff personality doesn’t exactly make the truth more palatable. This unpredictable ill-tempered man is prone to random outbursts of anger. Also, boastful lectures about he envisioned doomsday coming and had the foresight to prepare. You don’t build the ark after the flood, he says.
The writers are enormously effective at crafting situation-oriented dialogue that reflects deeper feelings and characteristics. When the trio play a word association game, we learn Howard is incapable of thinking of Michelle as a woman: the only words he can describe her with are “girl” or “little princess.”
Creepy. And things get a lot creepier.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead cuts an excellent lead, canny and obstinate. The actor balances projecting fear and confusion with desire for problem solving; you can almost see the gears in Michelle’s mind ticking over, weighing up her options.
But it’s Goodman who cranks the dial to eleven and steals the show, a bouldering force of nature delivering an utterly shit-eating performance. This will be remembered as one of the great roles from one of the great character actors.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a rock-solid debut for Trachtenberg, whose sense of space and use of visual reveal are particularly acute. The central mystery involves what is (or is not) beyond the door, but there are subtler flourishes and smaller mind games.
When one character steals a set of keys, we see only their attempt and not the theft itself. This implies they failed, until a subsequent shot divulges otherwise: a nifty pocket-sized reveal.
And when one character points to a magazine picture of key importance, vision of it is withheld from the audience. We are shown it just one or two short scenes later; enough to establish and resolve a mini mystery. There are other examples of the film working in similar ways—tight and sharp, innovative with its limited space and options.
Control loosens in a zanier final act, with Trachtenberg resolved not to let the story dwell in ‘interpret your own ending’ ambiguity. The director appears to understand that it is much more difficult to satisfyingly resolve a mystery than it is to create one.
There’s a little evidence of that here, but 10 Cloverfield Lane packs a wallop and audiences will be excused for fist pumping during the finale. Hints of Spielberg, Polanski and Hitchcock abound, packaged in a way that feels a little like a midnight B movie – but with real grunt and credibility.