Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane shares a few striking similarities to two other films I’ve reviewed this year: Green Room and The Shallows. All three films are stories of survival; they’re thrillers whose narratives are focused on individuals who, against greater odds, use their ingenuity to survive. Admittedly, Green Room is a bit more stripped away than The Shallows and 10 Cloverfield Lane in this regard—I think Saulnier is focused on depicting how primal human beings can be rather than their ingenuity.
Both Green Room and The Shallows had problems of their own regarding in how their respective screenplays constructed a story of survival however; I found both films eventually to be lacking in an atmosphere of tension due to each screenplay becoming too predictable. For the most part, 10 Cloverfield Lane avoids this problem of predictability, because there’s always a new problem that arises for the protagonist to face. The film has moments of respite which carefully lull you into a sense of ease, before it then jumpstarts the tension. This element of fear and peace, alongside with watching the characters enact out quick-thinking solutions, make 10 Cloverfield Lane such a thrilling film to watch.
What do I mean then, when I say 10 Cloverfield Lane avoids these issues of predictability in regards to its script for the most part? Well, the answer is right there in the title of the film. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes place in the same universe as, you guessed it, Cloverfield. Released in 2008, Cloverfield was a found-footage horror film that depicted ordinary citizens on the run from a giant alien monster. On the other hand, 10 Cloverfield Lane has a more realistic story and tone.
The story is about Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman who finds herself chained to the floor of a basement after she suffers a car accident. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), comes down to reassure her that everything is okay, and that she’ll be “freed” soon. Howard does make good on his promise and Michelle is soon freed from her chains and allowed to walk through Howard’s underground fallout bunker. She meets another prisoner, a man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who worked with Howard in building the bunker. Michelle learns that Howard isn’t so much her warden as he is her savior.
Surviving the car crash, Michelle was found by Howard and brought to the bunker, because a nuclear war was immediately underway. The air outside of the bunker is toxic thereby making the bunker a safe place of refuge. Yet, Howard’s attitude and behavior is somewhat suspicious, leading Michelle to believe that there’s more to Howards’ story than he’s letting her on. In the meantime, however, at least she won’t be bored. In preparing his bunker, Howard took preparations for everything and so the three pass the time watching old films, solving puzzles, listening to music, and so on, thus giving 10 Cloverfield Lane it’s quiet moments that will eventually give way to tension.
With a plot as simple as that—one which doesn’t involve aliens—you may be wondering, what are the ramifications of 10 Cloverfield Lane taking place in the same universe as Cloverfield? Well, for all its great acting and excellent use of suspension, 10 Cloverfield Lane is ultimately beholden to the Cloverfield title. Without spoilers, the final act of the film is devoted to bridging the gap between 10 Cloverfield Lane and Cloverfield. That act of bridging two separate films with completely different tones just doesn’t work here.
10 Cloverfield Lane does such a fantastic job in pacing itself slowly and building up its narrative; the thrilling moments are spaced well enough that they don’t become exhausting, and the new problems that arise appear so organically rather than seeming contrived. The final act of the film throws this out the window in favor of a more blockbuster tone, and of course I mean that negatively but what exactly does that entail? The exact opposite of everything I praised the film for. The methodical pacing is discarded in favor for a brash atmosphere. The hero is thrown into a situation we know that she’ll survive, because—slight spoilers—there needs to be the set up and hook for a potential sequel. Consequently, that means that 10 Cloverfield Lane ultimately suffers from the same problem of predictability that Green Room and The Shallows have, which, when writing a thriller such as this one, is just about the biggest mistake that can be made. If there’s nothing for the hero to lose, then the audience has no reason to be invested in the characters and thereby no interest to be invested into the film.
Despite such a crude final act, however, I think the merits of 10 Cloverfield Lane are too good to make this a film to pass up. As I stated earlier, the screenplay—penned by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle—is extremely strong. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes on a realistic tone through its careful exploration of its characters and in turn that makes the film all the more immersive—an important quality when trying to keep the audience frightened.
The film’s exploration of its characters is also helped by the commendable job of its three actors. Winstead and Goodman get the most attention here and both prove that they’re masters of both emotion and motion. Winstead switches from fearful to cunning in the blink of an eye; she’s determined to find out the truth. In contrast to Goodman’s own Orwellian figure, Winstead is lithe, and she dodges in and out of his grasp literally but also metaphorically. In her body and acting, she carries a determined spirit.
Likewise, Goodman is terrifying as Michelle’s captor, Howard. Howard’s anger is reflected in Goodman’s frame whose threat of violence is made exponential by his size. In acting, Goodman also brings a sense of unease. We quickly understand that a man who would chain a woman to a basement is not to be trusted yet Howard frees Michelle, treats her with respect, and wants nothing more than her company. Howard’s genuine care for Michelle’s wellbeing puts our understanding of his character at odds with our initial impression. What results then is a constant sense of terror underlying all of Howard’s positive actions. We remain fearful that just as quickly Mary is able to change modes, Howard too will transform into the monster we think of him to be.
10 Cloverfield Lane sports a careful attention to detail in crafting its atmosphere and plotting its story. The abstract elements of the script are bolstered by the material presence of the actors who are engaging enough to make the film believable terrifying. While the last act of the film behaves more as an ugly smudge than a proper conclusion, I can’t wholeheartedly say that it should demean anyone from watching this film.