If everything in Hollywood is beginning to turn into a franchise, it makes sense that 2008’s Cloverfield would turn into the franchise that plays more like an anthology series. The original film played with audience expectations so much, from its concealed story to its ingenious use of found footage (still one of the best examples of the format), that to merely create a copycat film for a sequel, or to delve further into the mysteries of the attackers in that film, would ultimately damage Cloverfield‘s reputation. 10 Cloverfield Lane represents something different: aside from a few elements that hint at a closer connection to Cloverfield, it’s an entirely different kind of film – but one that works rather brilliantly on its own.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving away from her life and a fallout with her partner when she’s suddenly in a terrible car accident. She wakes up in a bunker owned by a farmer named Howard (John Goodman), who tells her there’s been an attack of some sort above ground, and they’re now unable to leave. They’re joined by Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who rushed to join them in the bunker when he heard what was happening. But Michelle quickly questions whether or not Howard is telling the truth, which leads to a series of bad incidents.
It’s a fairly simple premise, though it’s given a bit of a Cloverfield-esque twist. But the actual film is a surprisingly superb piece of entertainment. It’s smart, tense with an appropriate level of dark humor, and wisely straightforward. There’s not a single key to the film working; it’s a combined effort on the part of a strong first-time director, a sharp script, and a trio of talented actors delivering their A-game best.
The cast is the most impressive element. Michelle deserves to join the rankings of the “Final Girls” in horror, even if she’s really the only girl, in large part due to the intelligence Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings to the character. Michelle is just smart. When she’s awake, she’s clearly focused on surviving, looking for any way to escape while trying not to draw attention from Howard. Whenever she does act, it’s easy to root for her because she makes decisions that actually make sense, even if it doesn’t work each time. She faces a tough obstacle in Howard, who’s given a formidable presence through John Goodman. Goodman is one of my favorite working actors, but he’s rarely given a good, meaty role these days. Here, he’s used perfectly. Howard is able to seem sympathetic, and very much human. But when something cracks with him, it’s all too revealing of something much darker in him. It’s a terrifying performance. Winstead and Goodman occupy the protagonist and antagonist roles, leaving Gallagher somewhere in the middle as Emmett. It’s a tricky role, but Gallagher manages to play to the character’s more ambiguous nature without revealing which way he’ll eventually lean towards. Given that the three are essentially it as far as a cast goes, their work is impressive, and does a lot to make the film work in its confined space.
The film also benefits, though, from director Dan Trachtenberg’s work. Visually, this is not a retread of Cloverfield‘s found footage format. Instead, this is a classically composed film, with shots that help create a claustrophobic atmosphere. Obviously, the fact that the majority of the film is set in a bunker contributes to that, but Trachtenberg makes sure that the layout of the bunker is clear, so it’s easy to understand how the different parts fit together. It also lets the film take advantage of each scene, relaying information in the scene that’s important to show rather than tell.
I’ll try to be vague about the ending, which is where I’ve debated my initial thoughts more than any other element of the film since I first watched it. There’s not a lot of explanation given for what happens, which is ultimately fine, even if it seems like an attempt to hint at a connection to Cloverfield without actually providing one. In a word: ambiguous. I wouldn’t say it bothered me extensively when I was watching it, but I find myself ultimately accepting it. And it does contribute to some of the motivations of the characters in a way that makes them more complex.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure if we needed a sequel to Cloverfield, and was relieved to discover that it’s not a sequel by anything other than a shared name of sorts. If anything, there might be a shared universe going on here, but nothing on the level of, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If what the Cloverfield franchise turns out to be is a series of loosely connected horror films, which is what it looks like here, then this could work. It lets films with original ideas, or fresh takes on familiar stories, play in a world where a strong concept can be easily sold. I’ve become a fan of horror in the past few years, thanks to some brilliant indie horror films, and if this is what it takes for some of these ideas to make a play for commercial success and broad viewership, I’m all for it.