After a car accident Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winsted) wakes up chained to a wall in an underground bunker with the owner of the bunker (John Goodman) claiming she has to remain there because of a chemical attack above ground. The longer her and co-inhabitant Emmitt stay there the less things appear as they seem.
First off it is worth mentioning from the outset that this is NOT a sequel to Cloverfield, JJ Abrams has confirmed that it takes place in the same universe 8 years later but is more like a distant cousin to it. Lower your expectations now of seeing that monster now.
With the exception of the last 15 minutes the film is shot in a very insular way to match the tone of what is going on. Goodman’s Howard gives the guided tour of his homemade bomb shelter and shows while there are personal compromises to be made (the only toilet being in the shower of Howard’s room for one) it actually has a pretty homely feel to it. Once the established characters are in and the initial drama dies down there’s a nice honeymoon montage of nightly dinners, weekly board games and the general relationship building throws of 3 strangers accepting their situation and making the best of it. After the 2 house guests stumble upon some things that don’t quite add up to Howard’s story the tension is quickly installed again and there are a couple of truly claustrophobic moments to bring everyone back to the dreaded reality they face.
It would be unfair to say there were budget constraints but there is definitely the feeling that this was made knowing it was going to have a low budget and director Dan Trachtenberg does a great job by never extending past his own reach. It is a film that knows what it is about and the narrative flows with real precision ease when watching how everything develops. The scenes never become boring as the way they are presented is changed up all the time, for a first time director Trachtenberg nailed it. If viewers go in thinking it’s going to be packed full of monsters and fast paced action they are going to have a bad time. For the most part it is a well executed tense thriller looking at how 3 strangers react to the confines of life in bunker with an apocalypse outside your door. That’s not to say there is no action and when it does happen it is mostly edge of your seat stuff (bar some silliness at the end).
All those aspects mentioned set the film up nicely but it is the acting that stands head and shoulders above everything else. Winsted does well as the lead and goes through all the emotions of being kidnapped in a convincing way. When she was terrified, you felt it and was sold on the peril of her situation each time it changed. What was also nice is that while she had the tank-top clad look of a cliche horror movie victim Michelle is actually intelligent, strong and doesn’t make stupid decisions that were unrealistic or make no sense. John Gallagher Jr’s Emmett filled the secondary role of a co-habitant as well as could have been expected given what he was used for but really this is about Winsted and Goodman, with Mr Goodman stealing many of the scenes. Howard is the archetypal alternative theory ex-military alpha who’s a stickler for manners and always keeps you on edge. The kind of guy who outsiders may mock for building a shelter for an impending apocalypse that, guess what, actually happens. Goodman is such a good character actor that from the outset you can see through his body language that something is not quite right and you never know how you can trust what he says when there are times you are pitying him and others you are outright terrified. Even when being passive the way Goodman delivers his dialogue coupled with his imposing physical stature makes him a great antagonists as you feel as helpless as those in the bunker and never know if you can rely on what he says or not.
The film puts its score to good use in a few different ways too. In the opening scene a song plays over the events leading up to Michelle’s car accident where she has had an argument with her fiance’ and is leaving him, it’s a little different and ends up being effective. As well as this there are happy go lucky songs that complement a montage of the trio accepting their situation to show the relieved tension from earlier, but on the flip side the same kind of music is used later on to contrast a horrific reveal and uses comedy in a more perverse way to round out the scene. This variation is another example of just how well made 10 Cloverfield Lane was.
Without getting into spoilers the ending was… a little out of left field. It isn’t a bad ending, just not the one I expected. There is a massive tonal shift and something very mainstream happens. It is hard to know if the intent was to satisfy movie goers that might not appreciate the way 90% of it was made, which would be a shame as the climax feels slightly compromised as a result. It is not the tonal shift I have a problem with, just the way they went about portraying it. This by no means ruins the film which remains a thorough stylish survival flick worthy of your time.
This little gem is well made and a brilliantly acted complementary piece to the Cloverfield universe. While not a sequel it more than stands up by itself as a tense, claustrophobic, well paced little captivity thriller with a few jumps thrown in. 10 Cloverfield Lane is as effective in its entertainment as it is simple.