The original Cloverfield is primarily remembered as an exercise of style rather than substance. This ignores the film’s many strengths, but it’s easy to see why this happened. The film was a complete first person perspective film in a way that has not really been repeated. It was tense, it was frightening, and it was wonderfully effective. But it hasn’t been revisited often since its release in 2008.
This is because the film doesn’t do well with repeat viewings. Once you see it and let it affect you, you’ve seen pretty much all the film has to offer. It was obvious that producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves were talented, but they wanted to be seen more as just technical wizards. They wanted to be seen as people capable of not only creating an effective thriller, but doing it with the fewest elements possible.
They succeed with 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s not a sequel to Cloverfield and does nothing to try to equal that film’s scale. It’s a film that only has three main characters, is shot almost entirely in one location, and doesn’t heavily depend on special effects.
It’s also one of the most effective mainstream thrillers to come out in a while.
The less you know about 10 Cloverfield Lane, the better it is. But the set up is like something out of The Twilight Zone. A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gets in a car accident and falls unconscious. She awakens in a basement, chained to a bed with an IV drip in her arm and breakfast waiting for her. The basement belongs to Howard (John Goodman), who explains to her that the world has been destroyed by an “attack.” He is not sure what caused it, but is determined to survive the fallout for two years in his bomb shelter. The only other survivor is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), one of Howard’s neighbors.
The questions come quickly. Is Howard lying? Is he telling the truth? Is it a mixture of both? The film plays its cards close to its chest. All good thrillers are not about the resolution but about the trip. They only work if the audiences are as disoriented as the characters.
10 Cloverfield Lane ensures that we never find out what is happening to anyone. There are many tense moments as the characters try to have something resembling daily life as the world above them may not even exist any more. We do get moments where characters have to fix things in the shelter, which provide great tension. I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the film in which the characters play Pictionary. Howard indicates that he suspects Michelle and Emmett are about to betray him, and it’s great to see both characters desperately try to deflect his suspicion.
Winstead is great as Michelle. It’s not a damsel in distress role, which helps turn the film into a subversion of female roles that Hollywood can’t seem to get rid of. Michelle is never treated like a sex object and is capable of defending herself. She is also resourceful and clever. Emmett is the secondary character who depends on Michelle. In an age where Disney still won’t produce female superhero movies, characters like Michelle stand out.
But the main reason the film works is because of John Goodman’s performance. Goodman has consistently one of the best character actors in history, but has never received a fraction of the recognition he deserves. He gives Howard an internal conflict as Howard tries his best to be a good host. But he secretly hates the world and is almost pleased that he was proven correct. When Emmett asks him if he has any regrets, Howard responds that he did everything he wanted to do with his life. It’s easy to be unnerved by his behavior, even as he cooks dinner for everyone. He’s not exactly crazy (that’s the whole point of the film) but his attempts to interact with people in a normal way indicates he is eager to hide from everyone. It’s reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, another man who made the seemingly ordinary appear grotesque and monstrous.
Goodman ignores the fact that he is in a genre film and wants people to remember his performance long after they’ve left the theater. He succeeds in creating one of the most effective, unnerving antagonists I’ve seen in a while.
There is a problem with the third act, where (minor spoilers) we find out exactly what has happened to the world. It goes back to the sort of overblown spectacle 10 Cloverfield Lane had been looking to avoid. But it’s at least believable given what the film has already revealed to us and we care about what happens to Michelle. It’s distracting, yes, but it’s not a deal breaker.
10 Cloverfield Lane is the sort of film I wish Hollywood would make more. It’s not dependent on CGI or on only addressing the audience’s most basic needs. It’s a film that could have been shot by film students over a weekend. But it works because everyone involved wanted to make the best possible film they can. It’s driven by a passion and a need to tell the story of these characters trying to survive each other. It’s simple but it works.