10 Cloverfield Lane is the giant monster attack/apocalypse horror film we deserved when the original Cloverfield came out in 2008. That film was an ambitious but messy shakycam disaster film with the bones of a good intimate horror/survival film trapped inside.
10 Cloverfield Lane takes everything that worked about the original and makes it a great film. Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, a young woman walking out on her fiance and driving as far away as she can. She gets sideswiped on a dark country road and wakes up chained to the wall of a survival bunker owned by Howard (John Goodman). Howard believes in every conspiracy theory. He really thinks he is saving Michelle and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) from certain chemical death outside by locking them inside his underground bunker. The mystery of what’s happening outside is nothing compared to the immediate threat of Howard’s unpredictable mood swings and punishments.
Perhaps the greatest problem in 10 Cloverfield Lane is the connection to the original film. A title like that suggests an immediate connection to the original, over the top Cloverfield. There really isn’t. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that rewards you for your patience. It, frankly, might have worked better as a stand alone horror about a conspiracy theorist trapping young people in his bunker. The reveal of the true nature of the attack is brilliant cinema, but it does create a disconnect in the narrative and undermines a lot of the paranoia that makes Howard such a rewarding villain.
Special notice goes out to Ramsey Avery’s production design and Michelle Manchard II’s set decoration. Howard’s bunker is terrifying and otherworldly. The common area is an overstuffed tribute to mid-century Americana, complete with jukebox and benign pastel board games. The supplies facility is what you would envision in a fallout shelter–gray walls, metal wracks, and every type of caned food imaginable. Michelle’s bedroom/cell is, again, what you would expect in abduction horror film.
The flow between the three areas is believable, which makes the layers of access in the house all the more unsettling. You need to earn your way into the museum-like common area where coasters are required and everything has its place. Otherwise, you’re trapped in military storage or a grungy cell.
The core trio of the film is the reason to watch. Winstead, Goodman, and Gallagher Jr. sell a very dense, overly mannered style of screenplay as believable and terrifying. Every word and every pause has subtext. 10 Cloverfield Lane layers image over image until everything starts paying off with more precision and spark than the entirety of Cloverfield.