I was exhausted by the time 10 Cloverfield Lane ended. Over the film’s 1 hour and 43-minute runtime, director Dan Trachtenberg takes viewers on a claustrophobic and tense rollercoaster that’s purposely sparse and lets the audience’s imagination take over. Turn after turn after turn, the film constantly challenges your perception of what’s actually going on. And as soon as you think you’ve “figured it out,” the film does the unexpected.
Announced in January, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a rare film simply due to its secrecy. Movies today are leaked and dissected months ahead of their releases, so it came as a genuine surprise when the film was announced earlier this year. That’s partly due to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot productions, which is notoriously militant about what it reveals. In the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the “less is more” approach paid dividends, making for a hugely satisfying experience.
This review won’t talk about any of the movie’s major moments though it will discuss what we’ve seen in the trailers, and also talk about the performances of the three characters, Michelle, Howard, and Emmett.
10 Cloverfield Lane begins with a crash, then a moment of confusion. Michelle, played expertly by Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, wakes up in a cellar, with no explanation as to how she got there. All she knows is that there’s blood on her head and her leg is cuffed to the bed. And then we meet Howard (John Goodman), a towering control freak who can’t stop talking about the apocalypse. He also thinks staying hydrated is key.
And that’s exactly what makes the movie so compelling. You’re never sure if Howard is being entirely truthful, or is who he says he is. Something always seems “off” but you can’t exactly say what. Early on, when Michelle asks Howard what he’s going to do to her—remember, she’s still chained up at this point—he replies blankly, “I’m going to keep you alive.” Chilling. It’s this kind of paranoia and uncertainty that drives 10 Cloverfield Lane forward and keeps you guessing until the very end.
This level of unpredictability is sustained throughout. Michelle is never fully trusting of Howard’s motives and just when you think he’s actually being truthful, and maybe even a bit vulnerable, something happens that makes you re-think your position. Not only does the movie challenge you to think about what’s happening inside the bunker, but outside, too. Is everyone really dead? Did Howard save Michelle from the Apocalypse?
Normally it would be pretty easy to “pick a side”—Howard is right, no Michelle is right—but there’s a neutral party at play with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a has-been who “hides from his problems.” As it so happens, he hides in Howard’s bunker following what he thought was the end of the world. But can he really be so sure what he saw wasn’t just fireworks? Or something else? No. He (and the viewers) is never 100 percent certain of what’s going on. When Michelle does get the chance to look outside, it looks like any normal day. But Howard won’t let them go outside.
So audiences watch these three as they survive the so-called apocalypse, doing mundane things such as puzzles and watching old movies on VHS. It sounds like an old-school version of MTV’s Real World but right when you think things are hunky dory, Howard behaves in a way that makes you question his sanity all over again. He’s weird and vicious and makes Michelle and Emmett follow strange rules. But he pretends like it’s all OK. He feels more like a prison warden than someone who is openly accommodating two fellow humans.
I can’t say much else about what happens. While the plot is tense and mysterious, it’s the performances from Winstead and Goodman that keep you invested in the movie’s outcome. Eventually, the movie provides the answers you’re looking for, and in a pretty horrifying way. But I won’t spoil it. Instead, go see it for yourself. Delight at the weirdness of Howard, and the fighting spirit of Michelle, who, even when the situation gets really dire, refuses to give up.
By the way, 10 Cloverfield Lane is described as a “blood relative” to 2008’s Cloverfield, but you’ll find out soon enough that monsters do indeed come in many forms, as the film’s tagline suggests.