Bad Robot, the production company of Hollywood super director J.J. Abrams, has established itself over the years as a master of viral marketing. The film that arguably established this trend was the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield, originally announced to the world through a series of teasers that only referred to it as 01-18-08, which resulted in rampant speculation about what sort of film it would actually be. Abrams and his company followed a similar pattern with Super 8 and the novel S., though the speculation could sometimes backfire (looking at you, Star Trek into Darkness). Their newest film was revealed via a surprise teaser trailer in January depicting Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. playing board games and assembling jigsaw puzzles to the tune of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now,” only to slowly reveal that things are not what they seem. It ends with the big reveal, as “Cloverfield” appears on the screen en route to the reveal of its full title, 10 Cloverfield Lane. But on the surface, nothing seems to tie it to Bad Robot’s first feature film beyond the name. We’d have to wait until March to discover exactly how the two films relate. And that time has come.
Winstead plays Michelle, a young woman who is seen breaking up with her longtime boyfriend in a dialogue-free opening montage (Bradley Cooper plays the boyfriend later on in a voice-over cameo). While driving along a Louisiana highway late one night, she’s run off the road, crashing spectacularly as her car rolls down a hill, knocking her out as she comes to a stop. She awakes in a concrete room, her leg in a brace that’s been handcuffed to a wall and an IV in her arm. She soon discovers she has been confined in a bomb shelter bunker by Howard (Goodman), a survivalist who is convinced that an airborne chemical or nuclear attack has killed everyone above ground, and they were the only survivors. Michelle soon discovers a third occupant of the bunker, a young man named Emmet (Gallagher Jr.), who helped build the cellar and forced his way in when the attack occurred. Michelle, having seen or heard nothing of the attack, has trouble believing them, and begins to plan her escape. Though escape is not as simple a prospect as she may think it is.
As the film’s lead and emotional core, Winstead continues to impress, giving a sensibly harried performance. Her huge, expressive eyes are perfect for a film defined by tense close-ups. It’s no surprise that this is not her first foray into the suspense thriller genre (Final Destination 3, The Thing, The Ring Two, etc.), nor is it her first ‘trapped in a room’ bottle episode of a movie (last year’s underseen Faults). There’s a guarded, steely resolve to her character, perhaps less of a cornered animal than she was in Faults, but no less resourceful and surprisingly calm considering her situation. Winstead is one of those actresses who always seems poised on the brink of mainstream acceptance, but her choice of roles belies such a notion. She is such a natural in a film like this, but her effectiveness is equally reliant on the quality of her belligerent, and it would be difficult to imagine a better foil for her than what John Goodman gives us in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It is vital for Goodman to strike a tenuous balance between outwardly sinister and perhaps a bit misunderstood, a man who heartily and often violently protects his very particular way of life, a survivalist proven right by an apocalyptic event of vague description, but beneath it all there is a sense that he cares for Michelle, though the extent to how and why remains murky. Goodman has a thunderous presence, barely contained by the claustrophobic environs, always lurking around seemingly every corner. Gallagher Jr. has much less to do than the two leads, but acclimates himself well as a combustible element on the side and a source of information on Goodman’s mysterious past.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the inclusion of Cloverfield in the film’s title. Inexorably linking it with the 2008 found footage monster movie from director Matt Reeves, it’s tough not thinking the choice amounts to little more than a marketing stunt. 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a found footage movie and doesn’t take place in the same location as Cloverfield, and doesn’t appear to be a monster movie of any kind. Of course, Cloverfield did not initially present itself as a monster movie, but showed its hand relatively early on in the process. 10 Cloverfield Lane remains coy, content to tell its own story, a profoundly tense and disquieting chamber play. And, for the most part, the film manages to forge its own identity. But there is a certain point in the third act when the film takes a turn that seems to betray the story it had been telling so far. Its final act is not necessarily poorly executed, but it feels tacked on and incongruous, like the filmmakers and the studio needed to justify the creation of a franchise around the Cloverfield name without making sure it fit in with the story they already had in place (the script, from Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, was taken over by Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle once Bad Robot acquired the rights and decided to fold it into the Cloverfield brand). Invoking the name also creates expectations that color the central mystery of the first two acts. It’s tough not to think that some sort of Clover-like monster isn’t behind the event that forced Howard underground. So the question remains: would 10 Cloverfield Lane be a better movie if we didn’t have these preconceived notions?
We’ll never know that if this movie were called The Cellar (the name of the original spec script) or No Escape (the name of Dan Trachtenberg’s short film based in the Portal universe that may have served as the calling card that got him the gig, and there are quite a few parallels between the two projects) or any number of other names it would have been a more satisfying whole. And it’s a shame that misgivings about its final scenes threaten to overwhelm what is otherwise an undeniably satisfying and suspenseful chamber drama bolstered by punishingly effective sound design, an often menacing score from Bear McCreary and excellent leading turns from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. The film may suffer from a case of over-marketing, But if expectations can be left at the door, it remains a confident, assured feature debut from Trachtenberg (the opening credit sequence is especially impressive), and a taut, engaging thriller.