10 Cloverfield Lane begins with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) apparently breaking off her engagement to an unseen boyfriend. She’s driving in the countryside when she is run off the road by a truck. She wakes up inside an underground bunker, chained to a wall and hooked up to an IV. Her host, Howard (John Goodman), insists that he saved her life. He says that the world has come under some sort of attack, and the air outside has become inhospitable to life. Michelle has no idea if Howard is telling the truth, but he seems just as dangerous as anything that could be out there.
First things first: there’s a lot that can’t really be discussed about this film. It should probably be said that one can easily go into this film without knowing what happened in Cloverfield. This is a very different movie with a very different scale. For the most part, this is a story about trying to figure out whether or not Howard is crazy. Its tension mainly lies in the interactions between the characters stuck in this little space. And within this purposefully limited context, the film is a fairly thrilling piece of genre filmmaking.
This script is pretty tightly put together. There are of pieces that make this story work, and the film is always mindful of introducing these pieces before they become important. It should be basic screenwriting, but it’s rarely seen in mainstream cinema anymore. Little bits and pieces of exposition become tremendously vital later on. Whenever the camera lingers on something, it’s likely that it’s going to come into play later. This is a film that doesn’t like to waste movement, and will always find a use for the piece that it puts on screen.
But that cleverness is secondary to the tension built on the main character’s uncertainty. A lot of fun of this movie is derived from the outward instability of Howard. The movie creates a very interesting character in Howard, who is at all once clearly competent and capable, yet not quite worthy of trust. There is a hint of something deeply human about him, which just adds to the overall sense of uncertaintly. He might be crazy, but he’s also kind of sweet. He’s an authoritarian, but it seems to stem from a softness that could be interpreted as nurturing.
A lot of it does have to do with the actor portraying Howard, John Goodman. Goodman is magnificent in this role, the conflicting natures of the character never coming off as lazy vagueness. It sometimes feels like the film is getting away with some dumb thing simply because Goodman is turning it into something. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also great in this movie. What’s so great about her character is that she never seems to grow complacent with her situation. She seems to always be trying to figure out the angle, always preparing herself to face the worst. Winstead is the kind of actress that can project a steeliness that makes everything work.
10 Cloverfield Lane still has other things in store, but it’s best to discover that for yourself. This is a solid little movie that doesn’t bother to hide its influences. It plays out mostly as it should, before revealing another game in its final stretch. And it mostly works. One might quibble with some radical shifts in tone, but it all seems to be part of a larger tapestry, one that might grow to be more interesting as the years go on.