Published Mar 11, 201610 Cloverfield Lane, the surprise release from producer J.J. Abrams, is a tight, pressure-cooker thriller and a solid calling card for first-time director Dan Trachtenberg. Skipping between tones with an older director's ease, Trachtenberg has concocted a claustrophobic and intense psychological cat-and-mouse game that fits right in with other recent indie sci-fi genre exercises, like 2012's Sound of My Voice or 2014's Coherence.
Much like those films, 10 Cloverfield Lane would have probably found a home on the festival circuit were it not for the Cloverfield franchise title, and the film succeeds thanks to its modest aims and tight screenplay from Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, with a boost from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. Billed as a "spiritual sequel" rather than a direct followup or sidequel to Matt Reeves' 2008 film, Trachtenberg pulls off a tricky three-hander drama that stands on its own while also building thematically on the first film's paranoia and sense of dread.
Trachtenberg gets the film running out of the gate with a thrilling pre-credit crash sequence. Michelle, played by scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is fleeing her apartment and her life with her partner when her car crashes and flips over in the middle of the woods. She's rescued by Howard, played with menace in a career-best turn from John Goodman, who locks Michelle in an underground bunker and tells her the world outside is no longer inhabitable due to some kind of foreign attack. Rounding out the three-piece ensemble is John Gallagher Jr. playing Emmet, who is living in the bunker, and says he believes Howard's claims. To reveal more of the plot would spoil the pleasures of Trachtenberg's ornate chamber piece that veers from Hitchcockian claustrophobia and suspense to domestic drama before transforming into something entirely different in the final act, all while riffing on John Carpenter's The Thing.
Goodman continues his streak here as one of the most underrated character actors, switching on a dime between shades of melancholy and instability to all-out rage in a performance that stands alongside his work with the Coen Brothers as one of his best. Just as strong is Winstead, who bounces back from a string of underseen VOD releases and fulfils the promise seen in 2012's Smashed with a solid turn. Channelling equal parts Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Sharni Vinson in You're Next, Winstead takes a genre role and elevates it, creating a fantastic new entry into the horror canon.
Equally strong is the screenplay by Campbell, Stuecken and Chazelle, who did a rewrite on their original 2012 "Hit List"-ranking spec script. Chazelle is proving to be a thrilling screenwriter, and there are shades of his Whiplash intensity to be found in the symbiotic power struggle between the three characters. There's a welcome narrative ambiguity to 10 Cloverfield Lane, leaving us with just the right amount of character motivation and information to craft a suspenseful thriller. That's also thanks to DP Jeff Cutter economically making use of the film's one-location setting and with a Spielbergian eye for set pieces. And while composer Bear McCreary has already churned out two generic horror scores this year, his work on the film is excellent, creating a rhythmic and inventive score that ups the ante at every turn.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a tricky film to talk about, without turning this review into a "What We Talk About When We Talk About 10 Cloverfield Lane" piece. Thanks to its ambiguous, Mystery Box-style marketing, the question on many viewers' minds will be "What is this film's connection to the first film?" and that's not really a question it intends on asking. Similarly, 10 Cloverfield Lane finds itself in an interesting position because of its tenuous (at best) connection to the previous film, something that had been retrofitted onto the film so late in the game that the actors claim not to have known the connection until days before the first trailer dropped. This is a much smaller film than Cloverfield and lacks that film's masterful reflection on media, trauma and spectacle.
Instead, 10 Cloverfield Lane finds its smaller strengths through its command of tension and suspense, and succeeds on the strength of its performances and direction.