10 Cloverfield Lane is a bit of a bait and switch for fans of 2008’s “Cloverfield.” Those hoping for another found-footage creature feature are going to be sorely disappointed, but what they get in its place is something far superior: a taut, claustrophobic thriller.
Producer J.J. Abrams has described 10 Cloverfield Lane as a spiritual sequel or blood relative to “Cloverfield.” While there are some vague references to its predecessor, this new film is otherwise completely unrelated in terms of characters, style and tone.
10 Cloverfield Lane centres on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who, after a car accident, awakens in a locked room seemingly held captive. It turns out she was found and brought to a bomb shelter by Howard (John Goodman), who claims an attack has left the air unbreathable.
Michelle is naturally sceptical of Howard’s claims even though Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), another resident of the shelter, says he saw the attack. Is Howard insane or was there really an attack? The answer is more complicated than we first imagine.
The spectre of Alfred Hitchcock is often invoked when talking about thrillers that haven’t truly earned the comparison. 10 Cloverfield Lane warrants the association, right down to the use of a score by Bear McCreary that recalls Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann.
Too often films that are compared to Hitchcock’s work feel more like a pastiche rather than a film that can stand on its own. First-time feature film director Dan Trachtenberg doesn’t try to copy the Hitchcock style, but recalls his best work through the use of visual storytelling.
That statement may sound strange as movies are a visual experience, but not all films use their visuals to impart their stories. These days, films tend to tell rather than show by having characters explain what is happening instead of letting the visuals do the work.
The opening few minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane have no dialogue. We see Winstead’s Michelle frantically packing. As she leaves her apartment, the camera lingers on the image of a set of keys and an engagement ring sitting on the counter. This is a far more elegant way of letting us know that she’s leaving her fiance then if she had simply said it.
While there are tense scenes of dialogue, Trachtenberg also isn’t afraid to have moments with little or no dialogue. Winstead expresses a lot through facial and body language alone. Without saying a word, we can see her figuring out the situation.
The script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle is smart without being smug or too clever for its own good. Michelle is written as an intelligent, resourceful woman who is constantly assessing her circumstances.
The writing of Howard is also compelling. At times, Howard comes across as nothing more than a delusional loon, but other times he makes sense enough to give Michelle pause. His demeanour is calm and composed, but he is prone to bursts of rage.
Once it is established that Howard can and will explode, the film builds on the suspense of what will set him off. Even innocuous dinner table banter becomes tension filled. This is a testament to the quality of the acting and Trachtenberg’s direction which allows scenes to build slowly.
Goodman creates a chilling portrait of a paranoid man who is quite possibly right, but also dangerous and unhinged. This is the kind of character that can easily be overplayed but Goodman’s performance is nuanced and focused, revealing a man who is barely able to keep it together.
In an interview with The Verge, Trachtenberg describes the Cloverfield franchise as “a platform to tell really interesting and fun and original stories” in a manner that is “part anthology, part something a little bit bigger.”
The Cloverfield brand could very well become the new Twilight Zone. Based on 10 Cloverfield Lane, I’d gladly cross over into the Cloverfield again.