’10 Cloverfield Lane” builds a story like a pressure cooker stuffed full of secrets. The movie itself is a product of surprise, springing out with a cloak-and-dagger marketing campaign only a few months before its release — a rarity in an era of movie making, where hype trains start well before the camera is loaded with its first roll of film.
J.J. Abrams, director of 2008’s shaky-cam creature feature “Cloverfield,” this time plops himself in the producer’s seat, with first-time feature length filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg directing. We’re in good hands here though, as Abrams and Trachtenberg have built “10 Cloverfield Lane” into a winding and confined corridor of a film.
Confinement (as well as confusion) is key here, and Michelle, played by a fiery Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, has to deal with a host of both. Blindsided by a car accident, she wakes up in a leg brace chained to a wall in the underground bunker of Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who professes that some sort of attack — could be the Russians, could be the Martians, Howard says — has left the ground above toxic.
That sounds like exactly the line of crap you’d expect a guy who builds a personal fallout shelter in his basement to spout, but a third (and at least slightly less-crazy) resident of the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), confirms Howard’s story of an attack above. The three settle into a routine of board games, cat puzzles and whispered uncertainties.
Restraint is the order of the hour as Michelle and Emmet maneuver their way around Howard and his tendency for exploding over perceived slights and ungratefulness of the sacrifices he makes as a considerate host. Howard moves with tensed hands and clenched jaw, and the mystery surrounding both his intentions and what has actually happened outside the bunker walls is peeled back in steady and small increments.
Tension is present throughout the film, but it ever crosses the line into frustration, mainly due to the characters onscreen being as much in the dark as the audience. The movie holds on to answers until just the right moment; scenes of frantic action finally give some breathing room after the camera stalks the characters around their underground cage.
Attaching the “Cloverfield” name to the movie does feel a bit like a manipulation to draw in fans of the 2008 monster movie of city- and seaboard-scale destruction. The seams do start to show a bit once the cellar story and the title’s implied pre-existing condition blend together — that’s not to say that the inclusion feels completely tacked on, but as its title suggests, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is more like a house on the same street than a direct relative to the first movie.
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