It is becoming an increasingly rare treat for movies such as 10 Cloverfield Lane to fly under the radar and succeed in surprising an unexpected public. Producers J. J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber have succeeded in sneaking out a high profile ‘spiritual successor’ to the 2008 found-footage movie Cloverfield, creating an inordinate amount of buzz and hype around what is ostensibly a low-key, low-budget thriller. They must be applauded for their efforts as their tactic has added an air of mystery to a movie that is about as far removed from its predecessor as possible. Director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted a lean and thrilling movie that keeps its audience guessing before a crescendo finish that leaves many of its questions firmly unanswered. Entry to the press screening came with a request to not reveal any of the plot’s spoilers and for good reason. The final fifteen minutes will no doubt polarise viewers, but it certainly won’t underwhelm.
In simple terms, the plot involves a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) surviving a car wreck only to find she has been chained to the wall in an underground bunker. Howard (John Goodman), the owner of the bunker, explains that a great calamity has occurred leaving the Earth’s air un-breathable and that Michelle is being detained for her own safety. A third bunker resident, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) confirms Howard’s story, but Michelle is not convinced, as Howard’s theories, revolving around a Russian nuclear strike or possible alien invasion, sound too implausible.
Plot details are probably best left there, for fear of spoiling any viewer’s enjoyment. The chamber play drama of the movie pulls the rug out from under its audience’s feet a couple of times blindsiding you with some shrewd, plausible and tension-inducing twists. For the most, this is a trim and edgy dance of duplicity as Michelle sizes up her host-cum-kidnapper and jostles with the decision of whether or not to believe his story.
The key to the movie’s success as a nerve-tickling thriller lies in John Goodman’s superb performance. Howard is plainly dangerous and possibly insane, but his mania is always tempered with some sort of likeability, however unusual he seems. As Howard shuffles around his bunker dancing to Tommy James and the Shondells, you feel your guard begin to slip. Goodman’s performance seems to be part thug and part kindly uncle and delivered with such conviction that you feel yourself beginning to believe his rantings.
The smart script keeps Michelle resourceful and washes away any prospect of incredulity. From the word go, she’s hatching plans to escape the bunker and carrying them out with an ingenuity seldom seen in damsel-in-distress horror movies. If she fails to escape her surroundings, it’s through no fault of her own and you feel like you could never do a better job yourself.
The film’s closing movement, it has to be said, feels like something of an afterthought. I suspect that some hasty reconstructive surgery has taken place. Luckily, however muddled the endings feels. It’s pulled off with such panache and sense of fun that you’ll likely not care at all.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writer: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
Runtime: 103 minutes