An effective Hollywood thriller usually depends on a couple of key factors: a believable premise, some sense of style, a confident director and actors that keep you on edge even when the formula begins to rear its ugly head. Luckily, Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane” has the director and actors to make it an escapist ride worth jumping on.
The story moves quickly with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hastily leaving what appears to be a New Orleans apartment after discovering her husband Ben (voiced briefly by Bradley Cooper) has cheated on her (the wedding ring is pointedly left on the dresser). It’s unclear where she’s headed, but following a brief gas station stop she hits the road again continually distracted by Ben’s incessant attempts to convince her to return. Almost on cue – just the first example of where you can see the plot points right in front of you – her car is sideswiped causing it to flip down an embankment and crash. Anyone think the person who hit her might go down and see if she’s O.K.? (Oh wait, is that semi-spoiler too obvious?)
When she wakes she discovers an IV in her arm, dried blood on her head and a knee fitted with a brace that is chained to a wall. In Michelle’s eyes it’s something out of a horror movie and she’s understandably freaked when Howard (John Goodman) arrives with a plate of food. Her “captor” tries to explain to her that he saved her after her accident and they are currently safe in an underground bunker. It’s too dangerous for her to leave, but as Howard is someone who probably has issues communicating with people, it takes a few repetitive scenes for her to understand something very bad has happened on the surface. Eventually she meets the bunker’s other new resident, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a thirtysomething local who Howard paid to help build the escape bunker. Unlike Michelle, he fought his way into Howard’s safe house when the world went nuts. Michelle doesn’t believe most of this though and it’s not until she tries to escape and discovers a local woman (Suzanne Cryer) suffering from some sort of unexplainable infection trying to get in that she realizes her new companions weren’t kidding.
A montage manages to cover a couple of weeks (or is it months?) as the three survivors settle in and entertaining themselves with puzzles, board games and old movies thanks to Howard’s well-thought out set up. Still, something doesn’t feel right to Michelle as her host consistently makes her feel uncomfortable. When the air filter goes on the fritz it turns out that only Michelle is small enough to climb through the shaft to reach the separate room where it is to fix it (how Howard could build his fallout shelter without a means for him to get to arguably the most important machine in the facility is probably something you shouldn’t think too much about). After flipping the air filter back on she sees a window to the outside world which turns out to be another escape hatch. She can’t open it, but is shocked to see the world “HELP” scratched on the window from the inside. Michelle then begins to deliberate whether she’s truly safer in Howard’s fortress or if she made a run for it on the surface.
Of course, because the film has a “Cloverfield” connection many will be waiting for that moment when monsters or aliens or some sort of creature will show up to connect the films. The benefit of that is it provides a significant amount of tension for the film’s final act as you keep waiting for the tie in. Contrarily, it takes the movie in a decidedly different direction that isn’t as organic to the world we’ve been introduced to as the filmmakers hoped it might be.
Where “Cloverfield Lane” really shows its commercial, straightforward storytelling origins is in its patchwork script (there are three credited screenwriters, two of whom worked together on the original draft). There are simply too many times when you can see the next plot point (and potentially the one after that) a mile away. A perfect example of this is Howard. When he proves that the world outside has gone crazy his motives are supposed to be sound. And, yet, even Goodman can’t mask the fact the only way the film can have any further conflict is that Howard isn’t what he seems and every new clue that’s dropped obviously leads to that conclusion. Moreover, because it’s a Hollywood studio production you know there has to be some reveal of what really happened at the end and our heroine – the film’s entire pov – has to be the one to discover it. It’s an age-old storyline, but also a predictable one. Trachtenberg is a smart enough filmmaker, however, to make sure there’s enough tension to keep things interesting until the inevitable occurs.
A commercial director and former podcast host, Trachtenberg isn’t looking to set the world on fire stylistically with his feature film debut. He uses mostly classic setups and avoids the shaky hand held camera effect from the first “Cloverfield” movie (that’s also because “Lane” was never really meant to tie into the first “Cloverfield” movie – obvious from Michelle’s use of a modern iPhone – but that’s a behind-the-scenes story for another day). This allows him, however, to really spotlight Goodman, Winstead and Gallagher Jr.’s performances. And because all three are worthy talents they can ground enough of the scenario to suspend your disbelief as long as possible. That being said, Trachtenberg fashions a number of impressive sequences including a bunker dinner that hints at Howard’s unique mental state and a confrontation later in the film that plays with the audience’s anticipation by escalating much more quickly than expected.
Impressively, considering the problems with the plot, Trachtenberg’s only true mistake as a director is letting composer Bear McCreary’s, um, overbearing score dominate so much of the film. It’s hard to believe the Emmy winner who broke through with his gorgeous work on “Battlestar Galactica” could be so conventionally cliché here. You have to wonder if the studio or Bad Robot believed it was necessary to drill it into the audience’s heads every time something bad is going on.
As for the cast, Winstead’s natural charisma immediately endears her to the audience and wonderfully conveys much of Michelle’s thinking without expositional dialogue. Goodman has the hardest job in the picture. He has to portray Howard as a creep while still giving him some sympathetic shading and three-dimensionality. For the most part he pulls it off and it’s another great overall performance he’ll likely not get enough credit for. Gallagher, Jr. is clearly game, but hamstrung by a script that really doesn’t give him enough backstory for his character (at least of what we see on screen).
Does “10 Cloverfield Lane” break the mold? Not at all, but Trachtenberg and company find a way to fashion a thriller that pushes enough buttons in just the right places to entertain.
Assuming you can ignore the roadmap it lays out right in front of you.