For a movie whose very existence was a secret until two months ago, "10 Cloverfield Lane" has a lot of expectations to live up to. Before a trailer for the quasi sequel to the 2008 found-footage monster flick, "Cloverfield," popped up in January -- seemingly out of nowhere -- no one had a clue the film existed.
And that's for one very good reason: for most of its production, the film was just an unassuming thriller by the name of "Valencia" (or "The Cellar" depending on which stage of production we're talking), and it wasn't until late in the game that it was absorbed into the "Cloverfield" universe.
Leading up to the release, director Dan Trachtenberg and producer J.J. Abrams kept mum on exactly what the connection between the films would be, calling the film a "blood relative" to its predecessor. Though "Cloverfield's" director (Matt Reeves) and writer (Drew Goddard) were on as producers, the tethers to that film appeared to be more along the lines of spirit and tone than any direct plot elements.
In the film's wordless opening sequence, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman from Louisiana, hastily packs a suitcase and rushes out of her apartment, leaving behind an engagement ring but grabbing a bottle of Scotch. Her flight is cut short by a serious car accident, after which she wakes up chained to the wall of an underground cement bunker. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), informs her that a cataclysmic event has taken place which has left the outside world uninhabitable. Luckily, he found her and rescued her, bringing her to the shelter he's had built for just such an occasion.
Michelle's dubious of Howard's claims, but a third resident of the bunker, a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), backs up his story. It will be at least year or two years before it's safe to return to the surface, but at least they're prepared: the bunker is stocked with plenty of food, a kick-ass jukebox and shelves of movies to watch -- from "Pretty in Pink" to "Cannibal Airline" (a fictional title, but man, is it one I want to see).
Sure, you can look at "10 Cloverfield Lane" as simply a cynical attempt to retrofit a modest little thriller onto a franchise to which it has little connection. It's a clear way to bring the film to the attention of a lot more people, and hopefully ensure that the film will be that much more profitable. But in a way, what Abrams and company are attempting appears to be similar to what John Carpenter had hoped to do with the "Halloween" franchise: creating an anthology of films loosely connected by general theme (nevermind that Carpenter made the second film in this series a direct sequel to the first, thus thoroughly perplexing audiences when the third film inexplicably veered off in an entirely new direction). But in this case, the gambit seems to be working this time around.
Nerve-jangling tense and claustrophobic, "10 Cloverfield Lane" is expertly crafted by Trachtenberg. Even if the film's final act isn't quite as strong as what's come before (and to be fair, it'd be hard for anything to live up to that), I admired its audacity.
For the majority of its running time, the film resembles a three-person play, with Winstead, Goodman, and Gallagher Jr. the only performers on screen, and they're all operating at the top of their game. The considerable tension comes from how these characters play off one another. Winstead gets to flex her dramatic skills in addition to her chops as an action hero, conveying Michelle's intelligence and resourcefulness. Her eyes are constantly alert, darting around and taking in every detail around her, so we buy it when she puts those details to good use. She's constantly sizing Howard up, attempting to determine exactly how much of a threat he poses.
The inventive sound design constantly keeps us on edge; as suspicion set in, every noise seems to be heightened -- from doors banging open or closed, to the clink of a glass bottle hitting the table. Composer Bear McCreary's frantic orchestral score adds to the suspense, making great use of some Bernard Hermann-esque strings.
Gallagher Jr. turns the sweetly naive Emmett into a compelling character. But John Goodman's performance is a thing of beauty. From his time on "Roseanne" to his frequent work with the Coen brothers, Goodman has always been equally skilled at projecting a sweet-natured goodness as well as alarming menace. He's a big guy, and knows how to use his size to intimidate.
Writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle have given him a great, complicated character to play; there's a scene centered around a game of Taboo that provides some fascinating and unexpected insight into Howard's psychological makeup. Pride, anger, and paranoia mix together in the body of a man who seems to have spent his time rooting for doomsday to arrive. He's the franchise's scariest creation.