For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is everything you want from a psychological thriller; taught, tense and awash with ambiguity. It is unfortunate then that the last portion of the film is such a nonsensical descent into the monster malarkey that made Cloverfield so nauseating. In fact, this script from Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken – which was originally titled The Cellar – had absolutely no connection to anything remotely Cloverfield-related until producer J.J Abrams seized upon an opportunity to develop it as a pseudo-sequel to the 2008 stinker what was, quite inexplicably – a box office success. The final moments are the only real link (and a tenuous one at that) between this effort from first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg and the Matt Reeves-helmed Cloverfield and it really does present as a tacked-on addition to a story that functioned perfectly well without it.
The cast of three are all excellent with John Goodman – too often confined to supporting roles – seizing upon the opportunity as a co-lead to deliver a performance of blustering intensity as Howard, a survivalist who has constructed an elaborate underground bunker within which he plans to see out a toxic infestation of the external atmosphere. Sharing what is a highly functional space – resplendent with living room, kitchen, toilet and enough food to last 10 years – are Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmet (John Gallagher Jnr), although their presence in the subterranean bunker have come about by altogether different sets of circumstances. We first meet Michelle above ground, having packed her belongings and hit the road to flee her boyfriend when she is involved in an accident, waking to find herself in a concrete cell, chained to a pipe. Soon enough, Howard saunters in and explains to Michelle that he ‘rescued’ her, both from the accident scene and the greater peril that was now unfolding in the outside world. Emmet, on the other hand, is confined by choice, having helped Howard build the bunker and seemingly accepting his doomsday theories.
Howard’s personality fluctuates from one of stone cold menace to moments of conviviality as the three settle into a routine of somewhat stilted domesticity. It is impossible for the audience to know how much of what Howard has claimed about the state of the world is true because the only events to which we are privy are those taking place in the bunker. Revelations for the characters and the audience occur simultaneously and whilst it is obvious that Howard’s intentions are not entirely honourable, there are moments along the way that suggest his claims about the state of the world might hold some weight. Of course, there are just as many that indicate he is nothing more than a raving loon. Either way, Michelle is determined to find out the truth and there are several contrivances thrown in to serve primarily as devices through which she becomes increasingly suspicious of Howard’s claims about the state of play in the world outside.
Whilst comparisons with Room are inevitable, this is a different beast altogether and needs to be evaluated as such, particularly given the fact that both the captor and the captive are given equal weight here. Trachtenberg steers clear of the salacious and, if anything, Howard sees Michelle as a daughter-figure, a surrogate for the family whose absence is shrouded in mystery. Like Room, the effectiveness of a narrative in such a confined setting relies very much on the quality of the performances and they are all exemplary. With an imposing physical presence that perfectly complements the psychological equivocality of his character, Goodman is eerily effective in transitioning Howard from abominable to affable in the blink of an eye. Winstead (Scott Plilgrim vs The World, Kill the Messenger) is all elegant restraint, imbuing Michelle with a growing sense of slyness and subversion as she sets forth on a plan of escape, while Gallagher (Margaret, Short Term 12) is understated but highly effective as the slow-talking, naïve, but eminently likeable, Emmet.
Although we are kept guessing about what’s happening above ground, the interpersonal dynamics of these increasingly frazzled characters are so engaging that, after a while, you don’t really care what fate may have befallen the rest of the population, which makes the final 15 minutes or so such a huge disappointment. Intriguing and intimate, 10 Cloverfield Lane stands tall as a tense thriller, despoiled only by a dunderheaded final act that is a cynical attempt to cash in on whatever cultural cache the original Cloverfield may possess in the consciousness of multiplex audiences.