“One of the best mysteries in recent years”

by Steve Pulaski

10 Cloverfield Lane is a unique specimen in 2016; here’s a film that comes out on the heels of very little marketing buzz, so much so that only a sentence-long plot synopsis was made known to the public, minimalist trailers that, unlike most, do not air before every new release in theaters, and a week of screenings that have had many critics tight-lipped about what the film actually is. When I first heard the film was going to be released, I had to try not to shrug it off and assume it would be a mediocre, loosely connected followup to the 2008 smash hit Cloverfield that’s main goal was quick cash.

However, after the thirty minute mark of the film, I knew I was in for anything but a cash-in, let alone a film that was trying to be a followup or a continuation of the world set forth by the aforementioned film. 10 Cloverfield Lane not only takes the series into an alternate direction, but completely revitalizes its formula by creating a Hitchcockian-style mystery that is predicated upon heart-racing tension and immaculate aesthetics that are often so crisp and consuming, you might have to remind yourself that you’re not the one trapped in the film.

Being that 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of those films where, when describing it, there is a vague line between what is spoiler territory and what is part of the basic plot outline. To keep things decidedly simple, the story opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), driving home on a long, secluded road after a fight with her boyfriend, before she is involved in a devastating car accident that sends her flying off the side of the road. She eventually wakes up in an underground bunker and meets Howard (John Goodman), a dedicated survivalist, who rescued her from the wreck and claims that this is the safest place she can be following “what happened.”

10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by
Dan Trachtenberg
John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Release Date
11 March 2016
Steve’s Grade: A+

Howard informs her that a devastating attack has taken place outside that has left nearly everyone dead or contaminated with some sort of disease; the size, scale, and cause of the destruction is unknown due to the radio-tower being knocked out. In preparation for an event like this, Howard has taken the precaution of designing this underground bunker like a home, with a shower, toilet, Television set, a full kitchen, and food supplies to last years if rationed. Also in the bunker with them is Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a friend of Howard’s who remembers when he was constructing this bunker. Howard will also not let Michelle nor Emmett look onto the outside world through windows without his permission, leaving the three without any contact beyond the walls of the bunker.

This kind of premise just breeds claustrophobia and fear and 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass example of such. Using some fascinating cinematographical tricks (employed by Jeff Cutter) that showcase the cramped environment of the bunker, in addition to some beautiful, sweeping long-shots in such a tight space, both Cutter and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg create an environment that startles and mystifies. The trio of screenwriters (Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, writer and director of the fantastic Whiplash) are smart to keep us, the audience, just as trapped as the characters in this film. We don’t know more than they do and we’re put in a position to buy or reject Howard’s simultaneously incredulous but believable story of doomsday.

In addition, the sound design in this film is layered and cut-throat, not so much heavy on the jump-scares or the abrupt synthesizers that work for a good jolt, but in terms of adding to such a congested area where every sound is ostensibly amplified to ear-shattering effect. This makes every effect and auditory accoutrement to 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s beautiful cinematography resonate that much more, and makes for a slowburn, suspense-driven delight.

Finally, let’s please talk about John Goodman’s career-making performance in the film, as he broods but never settles for empty fear. His gravelly, almost guttural voice makes each syllable that rolls of his tongue feel like a sucker-punch to the jaw, and such a blow lands right on the exterior of Mary Elisabeth Winstead, who is anything but a passive force of abuse in this film. Winstead’s strength and power as a leading woman is communicated throughout the film, and she proves to a public that has slept on her despite strong performances in Grindhouse: Death Proof and Smashed that she’s worthy of recognition. Only more likely to be slept on her is Gallagher, Jr., who does some damn-fine work as well, but sort of finds himself ostracized by the sheer power of both Goodman and Winstead.

Again, I must emphasize the fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane is a proclaimed “spiritual successor” and “blood relative” to Cloverfield and not a direct sequel, prequel, or any immediately connected entity. This is probably for the best, as the pulse-pounding effects of Cloverfield‘s found footage/shaky camera aesthetic have worn threadbare within the last eight years since the genre’s revival. 10 Cloverfield Lane goes for something different, more electric, layered, and scary, and the film manages to be one of the best mysteries in recent years.