After a road accident Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a bunker with her captor, Howard (John Goodman), claiming America’s been attacked. She settles into life underground, but resolves to discover exactly what’s going on.
As recently as the beginning of 2016, no-one had heard of 10 Cloverfield Lane. For years there was talk of a sequel to 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield, but it had all but dissipated — starved of new information from J.J. Abrams or director Matt Reeves, people had simply stopped asking them about it. And (in J.J.’s case) they had the small matter of a new Star Wars to ask about instead.
In retrospect, given Abrams’ history of springing surprises, this actually made it the ideal time for him to unveil a sequel. Or “blood relative”, as he’s calling it.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (his first feature), announced via a trailer in January, and out less than two months later, it bears scant similarity to the first film — gone is the found-footage shaky-cam device. And rather than huge effects sequences set across an entire city, the action is claustrophobic — confined to a few cramped rooms underground. Also, there’s no giant, city-devouring monster. Unless you count John Goodman.
We open with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fleeing New Orleans and a broken relationship. It’s an almost wordless sequence, punctuated only by her ex-boyfriend pleading with her on speakerphone as she drives into the Louisiana night. The near silence is especially effective — the sudden loud crash as her car is rammed into is a shock scare to jolt you upright in your seat, the first of several times the film manages that feat.
Michelle wakes up in a sparse room, a drip in her arm, but manacled to a pipe. Alive, but a prisoner. It’s here we meet Howard (John Goodman), the man who pulled her from the wreck, but is now her captor. It’s his introduction that strains credibility, as he tells her, “I’m sorry, but no-one is looking for you,” as she bargains for her release, delaying his reveal of what he claims is really going on: the country's been attacked by enemies unknown, but they’re safe in the bunker. That information comes later, after an escape attempt and more ominous statements from Howard, but it’s clear she’s not in the immediate physical danger she believes she's in, which lessens the effect.
There’s no giant, city-devouring monster. Unless you count John Goodman.
But it’s the only real misstep, things picking up immediately as the bunker’s third inhabitant, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), is introduced and the central conceit is presented — is Howard telling the truth (as the evidence initially suggests), or is something more sinister going on? From this point we learn things as Michelle does, and her fear and uncertainty are projected onto us. The best she can hope for is that Howard is a good man, just not particularly normal. But as time passes, and she picks up snippets of information, it becomes clear there’s a darkness in his past that threatens what she’s been led to believe. Emmett sees it too, suggesting a potential bucket list to Howard which includes taking “a pilgrimage to Waco”.
It’s a smaller, more intimate film than the first Cloverfield would lead you to expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of action. Sequences that see Michelle crawling through ventilation ducts are particularly tense and uncomfortable (no, "Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs," quipping here). The key to this succeeding is Winstead. Goodman is good in the showiest role, but it’s Winstead’s film, and she ably takes us with her on her journey of ever-changing emotions.
The impact that journey will have on you depends on how much you already know — the colder you go in, the better. So see it before someone blurts out its secrets in your earshot. Good luck.
Abrams’ you-didn’t-see-this-coming announcement was an effective piece of theatre, which the film itself ably lives up to. A thriller that winds you tighter and tighter before its secrets come tumbling out in a cathartic finale.