Producer and director J.J. Abrams is a cinematic showman, and nothing makes for a better show than a teasing mystery, followed by a big, surprising reveal. And the filmmaker has a made a career (and even given a TED talk) about his “mystery box” approach to storytelling. However, the gambit hasn’t always worked. “Star Trek Into Darkness” in particular saw fans complaining that the secrecy around the villain Khan was largely unnecessary (with Abrams admitting the marketing didn’t work, and that there were too many nods to “Star Trek II: Wrath Of Khan”). And while his involvement in “Lost” didn’t go beyond the first season, Abrams is credited with coming up with concept of the island being a character in the series, with the show then left forever struggling to resolve the basic questions it raised. However, when the mix turns out right, Abrams’ style can be affecting (“Super 8”) and hugely successful, and in that latter category is 2008’s “Cloverfield.” Produced by Abrams and directed by Matt Reeves, the monster movie was preceded with teasers that promised spectacle, but didn’t take a lid off the thrills until you sat down in the theater. And the spiritual sequel, “10 Cloverfield Lane,” has arrived using a similar gameplan. The first trailer dropped on unsuspecting movie fans two months ago, revealing for the first time that this movie even existed, and you’ll be glad to know, it doesn’t reveal a single thing about what awaits in the film. But the question remains: is the payoff worth it? You bet it is.
Following a car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground bunker belonging to Howard (John Goodman), who has some unwelcome news she finds difficult to digest. He claims to have saved her life, but an unprecedented incident has occurred, all of her loved ones are dead, there’s an unspeakable danger awaiting outside, and most crucially, he can’t let her leave. Howard refuses to let Michelle go, and risk putting her in danger, or letting whatever is outside find its way into the fortress he has built. Also down below is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who acts as the equilibrium between Howard’s paranoid state and Michelle’s unease. And the question quickly becomes, who can she she trust?
Penned by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with a pass done by “Whiplash” writer/director Damien Chazelle, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has a lean premise, but it’s rich in texture. As we learn more and more about Howard, he emerges as a Navy trained, Alex Jones-styled conspiracy theorist, who in being able to put his doomsday shelter to use, finds justification for his wildest musings, with his already borderline personality now reaching a delusional state. However, the script adds layers, with secrets from his past along with suggested ulterior designs on Michelle combining to make him not just a freak, but a threat, with real and sometimes queasy motivations. And while Emmett takes the role of comic relief, and possible ally to Michelle, there is just enough around the edges of how he positions himself among the trio, along with his assertion that something really did happen in the outside world, that he’s still something of a mystery. For Michelle it leaves her constantly on edge, with both physical and psychological harm very real minefields she constantly has to navigate as she tries to find some level of engagement with her captor and fellow roommate, while also looking out for her own self-preservation.
All of this substantive character material gives the actors a lot to work with, and their performances lend “10 Cloverfield Lane” more substance than its predecessor. With the entire movie hinging on the big reveal, part of the ability to roll with what comes in the latter half of the picture depends on what we know about these characters, and particularly in the case of Michelle, how much we care about her. More than just giving her a survival narrative, the writers also find Michelle at a crossroads in her life — one that gains resonance given what she experiences across the film. And Winstead finds all of those notes perfectly, fleshing out Michelle beyond just a figure to rally behind. Per usual, Goodman is excellent, and one senses he relished the dark complexity of Howard, while Gallagher Jr. is effortlessly amiable, but holding just enough back from complete likeability to fit the film’s anxious atmosphere.
A chamber drama combined with thriller elements and — well, I can’t tell you that — is a lot to take on for a first feature film, but director Dan Trachtenberg does impressive work with a picture that will surely have Hollywood soon knocking on his door. It’s his measured hand with tone that’s really noteworthy, never over-reaching with each twist of the plot, keeping the tension on a simmer, and even when things boil over, “10 Cloverfield Lane” gets feverishly exciting but not hysterical. And when it comes to the film’s latter stages, Trachtenberg show a moderate hand for spectacle that doesn’t diminish the impact of what the story builds toward, or overcook the picture’s climactic moments.
Much will be made about how “10 Cloverfield Lane” was marketed, and there will likely be thinkpieces to follow that will champion Abrams’ approach of selling the sizzle, without showing the steak. That’s a post-game analysis worth a whole other piece, but when it comes to the film at hand, this is all you need to know: when that mystery box is finally opened, you’ll be more than satisfied. [B]