Challenge mode: talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane without talking about what it is versus what it isn’t, all while avoiding the pitfalls of spoilers (with the term “spoilers” being loosely and variably defined by everyone who happens to click on this article). That’s a daunting task made necessary only by J.J. Abrams and his insatiable appetite for secrecy; his trademark “mystery box” approach to making movies is only matched by his love for exhausting games of connect the dots. Did you know, for example, that the gas station in Super 8 is the same gas station that we see toward the start of 10 Cloverfield Lane as our heroine, Michelle (the dauntless and awesome Mary Elizabeth Winstead)*? No?
Good news, then. As with everything else tangentially hitched to Abrams’ newest under-the-radar endeavor, it matters not at all whether you are aware of the potential links between 10 Cloverfield Lane or its supposed predecessor, Cloverfield, or any other hyper-stylized nostalgia-fest in Abrams’ oeuvre as a director, as a writer, and as a producer, which is the role he serves here. Behind the camera, to Abrams’ immediate right, there sits Dan Trachtenberg, a commercial director and a host on The Totally Rad Show who appears to have zero stomach for the shaky-cam found footage nonsense that 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s older, crummier brother built its foundation on. Cloverfield has its pleasures and merits, but it is hardly a movie. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie, and a pretty damn good one at that. It’s the rare circumstance where the mystery box approach actually succeeds.
The film begins as Michelle hustles out of her apartment in a sequence bereft of diegetic sound; before she gets in her car and before her boyfriend starts calling her to hash out their relationship, we already know that we’re watching the muted dissolution of a relationship. As she drives away from her life, she is run off the road by a reckless driver. The accident knocks her out cold. When she wakes up, she is a prisoner in a concrete cell, chained to a pipe and hooked to an IV bag with dressings on her wounds, an unwilling guest to a self-congratulating host named Howard (John Goodman). Howard claims to have saved her life from an “attack” on the outside world by dragging her unconscious to his underground survivalist bunker, and therefore expects her to be well-behaved and grateful for his unasked for generosity.
You may be able to see where the film is going from here. Michelle is introduced immediately as competent, collected, and resourceful; Howard is introduced immediately as the first of these, but beneath his competence and know-how runs a gushing vein of male fragility and insecurity. He insists repeatedly that someone – the Russians, perhaps, or Al Qaeda, or even Martians – has done a number on the U.S., that the very air we breathe has been rendered caustic, and that they both must stay in his bunker for a year, “maybe two,” until this whole thing blows over. We sense right away that Howard isn’t being totally truthful with Michelle on some plane or another, though it is hard to root out the particulars of his dishonesty to begin with. It doesn’t help that Howard’s story is corroborated by Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), Howard’s only other source of companionship in the bunker. Something’s out there. We just don’t know what.
10 Cloverfield Lane concerns itself more with what is in here, though, which frankly is a good bit scarier, and that is about as much as can be said about the film without giving away more than what trailers already have. This is a movie about the anxiety of not knowing, about trading on the truth in the interest of personal security; we are confronted with supporting evidence of Howard’s frequently batshit claims, but Trachtenberg keeps the full scope of reality just beyond his viewers’ grasp. He is more concerned with exploring the tension between the monsters that exist both within and without the spaces we deem safe. (Sort of like what the poster tells us, only prettier.) The film ties that idea together with a roundly feminine fear of loss over one’s sovereignty, and of being made powerless against male dominion; it’s a theme introduced by that early moment where Michelle stops to fill up her car as she makes her desperate road trip. She’s alone when a traveler pulls up opposite her, and while we do not see this person’s face, we can read the palpable sense of apprehension on her face. Michelle does not want to be isolated with strangers, and so naturally that’s exactly what happens to her in the most extreme scenario possible.
Aside from the strength of its ideas, 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds on the talent of its ensemble, tiny in scope but populated by big personalities. Goodman, as Howard, is charming and empathetic, controlling and brutish, and many other things best left unstated so as to maximize his effect on an unsuspecting audience; Gallagher, meanwhile, presents Emmett as sweet, just dopey enough to belie his character’s wit, comical, and human. Standing between both of them is Winstead, who is probably the film’s best recommendation; she layers toughness upon intellect in Michelle and tempers them both with her penchant for projecting, or feigning, weakness, a gift she uses to fool us as often as to fool Howard. Winstead has long been a strong actress made of enduring stuff, but 10 Cloverfield Lane suggests that she has perhaps missed a secondary calling as an action star. Put in short, she kicks immense ass. (Cue angry comments from male chauvinists complaining that, like Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Michelle is just too adept to be believable.)
So does Trachtenberg. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid debut on technical grounds – he shoots well in his constricted environs, lending the film a claustrophobic quality without obliterating its sense of geography – but even more admirable than Trachtenberg’s chops is the way in which he separates himself from Abrams’ aesthetic brand. This does not look or even feel like an Abrams movie, which is no small thing when Abrams’ name is all over its marketing. (Hell, the very title invokes his image.) It feels like a Trachtenberg movie, which for now means that it indulges in reference without mimicking its references, though as with all details, any mention of what those references may be do not belong in a formal review. Want to unpack this Abrams enigma? You’re going to have to take a peek inside the mystery box yourself.
*This nugget I overheard as part of post-screening discussion. I have no idea if it is for real or not, but I’ll take the speaker at their word.