When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to the wall in an underground doomsday bunker after a car accident, she finds herself the captive of obvious lunatic Howard (John Goodman), a conspiracy nut who, along with his other “guest,” Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to convince her that he is not a serial murderer but in fact her rescuer. Supposedly there’s been some sort of catastrophic attack, and the poisoned air will liquefy anyone unlucky enough to still be outside. Like a classic Twilight Zone installment, 10 Cloverfield Lane is simultaneously tersely suspenseful and a bit cute in its cleverness, so much so that its climax, weirdly telegraphed by its marketing materials despite never appearing in them, is as satisfying as it is completely unnecessary.
Most of 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s runtime is devoted to a tight three-hander, as Howard’s motives and increasingly erratic behavior make him seemingly much more of a threat than any terrorist bomb. Goodman is the film’s not-so-secret weapon, delivering a perfectly calibrated performance that cycles from rational calm to quivering agitation to booming anger, often in the same shot. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film doesn’t lean more on his status as a likely psycho, which accompanies an underserved thread about fearful women trapped in relationships with controlling and/or abusive men (Michelle was initially on the run from an unpleasant fiance when disaster apparently struck).
Despite the flaws highlighted by its unusual marketing and bifurcated plot, you could do an awful lot worse for an idiosyncratic genre hybrid.
An even bigger problem here is the film’s title, which links it to Drew Goddard’s similarly stealthily-sold 2008 found-footage riff on kaiju. We know there has got to be some sort of sci-fi twist, undercutting the question of whether or not something bad actually happened on the surface and making the third act action seem tacked-on, strangely divorced from a claustrophobic hostage thriller even while it makes good on Michelle’s arc of self-actualization. Still, first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg applies some tricks of economy to ratchet up atmosphere. His simple compositions both place the characters uncomfortably close to each other and perfectly articulate their cramped space, and there’s some excellent deployment of sound design, particularly involving the metallic shriek of heavy bulkhead doors. Despite the flaws highlighted by its unusual marketing and bifurcated plot, you could do an awful lot worse for an idiosyncratic genre hybrid.