J.J. Abrams did not write or direct 10 Cloverfield Lane (he was busy last year), but it definitely looks and sounds like he did. That’s a good thing. The movie plays like a long episode from the great early seasons of Lost. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg and writers Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken , and Damien Chazelle borrow a few tricks from producer Abrams’ bag: Shaky-cam, creepy images hinting at bigger mysteries to be solved later, characters who are a combination of a guy who seems good but could be bad , and seems bad but could be good. It’s hard to describe what exactly 10 Cloverfield Lane is without wandering into spoiler territory but what it isn’t is a sequel to Cloverfield (2008). That may be a disappointment to some but it shouldn’t be.
For a film that could only be called high-concept, it’s elegantly simple. After a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, always welcome) wakes up chained to the wall in a bomb-shelter owned by rural conspiracy theorist Howard (John Goodman). Howard tells of an attack on the United States by an unknown enemy (Russia? North Korea? Mars?), and tells her that, due to the contamination of the air, they will need to stay underground for “a year, maybe two.” Michelle is, naturally, not quick to believe Howard, but the story of an attack is soon corroborated by a third survivor, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.). While there is evidence that something has happened on the surface, no one is quite clear what, and Howard, who is quick to assert his authority, will not allow for investigation of the matter.
A major problem with surviving cataclysm in a stranger’s bomb shelter is being locked in with the kind of guy who would build a bomb shelter. The film’s main concern is whether Howard is a force of benevolence or antagonism. John Goodman is perfectly cast in the role. Goodman has long brought a combination of cuddliness and violent rage to his characters. As Howard, he uses this quality to in turn coddle and bully his two charges, trying to position himself has a kind of tyrannical nurturer, especially to Michelle. The two guests grow increasingly unsettled as Howard’s duplicity and the truth of the apocalypse begins to mount.
Set almost entirely in the few rooms that comprise the shelter and coming in at a lean 102 minutes, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a triumph of economic storytelling. The short running time means having to condense the plot, and Trachtenberg keeps the film cooking (though not without a fun montage of “bunker life”) maintaining its sense of urgency. For the second time this year, with the earlier release of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, we have been given a tremendous genre piece from a first-time director. This bodes well for the future.
10 Cloverfield Lane/Director: Dan Trachtenberg/Writer: Josh Campbell, Matt Stueken, Damien Chazelle/ Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr./PG-13/ 102 min.