The J.J. Abrams Bad Robot “Mystery Box” formula has yielded lots of intriguing and successful films and television shows, perhaps none of them as cultish as 2008’s “Cloverfield,” which alongside “Paranormal Activity” put the found footage genre permanently on the map with this elusive, almost anti-Hollywood alien invasion story.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is totally different. Although it shares DNA with its 8-year-old predecessor, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is shot in the vein of a classic suspense thriller, one even Alfred Hitchcock would admire. There are no gimmicks, just great performances, direction and a dynamite concept.
Genre film actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (genre in that her filmography is anything but traditional) stars as Michelle, whom we first see fleeing her city apartment and driving off into the country. She gets in a horrible car wreck and wakes up in an underground shelter with a man named Howard (John Goodman) claiming to have saved her life not only from the accident, but also from a massive attack that has left the outside world completely toxic. From there, the film becomes a suspenseful guessing game about the truth. Is Howard an insane man who abducted her, or is he telling the truth?
Director Dan Trachtenberg, who got noticed in a big way when he made an Internet short film in 2011 based on the video game “Portal,” shows excellent filmmaking instincts in a story and movie that refuses to (and can’t be) pigeon-holed. Novice writers Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken have conceived and written something rather brilliant (with screenplay help from Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle) with this idea of “is the real evil inside or outside the bunker?” Yet it’s Trachtenberg’s skill and performances by Winstead and Goodman that make each minute entertaining and exciting.
Much of “10 Cloverfield Lane” could work as a stage play, that’s how tight and focused the drama and story are (except for the parts when it’s not, which I can’t discuss without spoilers). That’s also why pros like Goodman are essential. The psychological mystery has to be as compelling as the larger-scale mystery lurking in the back of the audience’s mind for the film to work, and it does. Trachtenberg could just as easily go make a crime drama for his next project as he could a sci-fi horror flick.
Both the narrative and the stunningly cryptic performance of Goodman keep the audience squarely in film’s palm. Our minds are yanked in and out of certainty as we madly attempt to guess at the truth, with information coming in the form expertly creepy and often jarring scenes. Oh, and there’s plenty of humor too if all that isn’t confusing enough. “10 Cloverfield Lane” precisely proves to be the epitome of the mystery box, and watching it open is a total delight, even through its seemingly box-busted ending.
Not to overuse the analogy, but anyone expecting “10 Cloverfield Lane” to fit into any kind of box will be disappointed; those who can appreciate the melange of tones and styles that it so exceptionally encompasses will find themselves entertained in a way only so many films can.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.