The headline on the Guardian‘s review of 10 Cloverfield Lane reads “more Hitchcock than Xbox.” I like the British newspaper, but this isn’t one of their better headlines. It engages in a glib comparison for the sake of assonance. While watching this terrific sequel to Cloverfield, I was reminded of Roman Polanski’s films far more than Hitchcock’s. The Polish director specializes in psychological thrillers with a few characters trapped in an enclosed space. I can’t help but think he would love this.
The story begins with a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) getting into a serious car accident while fleeing her abusive fiancé (whom we don’t see, but whose phone voice is provided by Bradley Cooper). When she comes to after the wreck, her injured leg is chained to a bed in a concrete underground bunker on a Louisiana farm owned by Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that America has been attacked and everybody above ground has been killed by an airborne poison. Fortunately, he has prepared for the apocalypse and has all the supplies needed for survival for himself, Michelle, and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the handyman who helped build the bunker. Unfortunately, he’s angry and unstable in the way that men who build doomsday bunkers tend to be. Michelle wonders whether he’s deluded. We know from watching Cloverfield that he’s right about the aliens, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not crazy.
Somehow, it has taken this long for some filmmaker to figure out that John Goodman is one scary-ass dude. Even the Coen brothers, who have cast him repeatedly, never turned him loose to the extent that he is here. Howard says he has served 14 years in the Navy, and while nothing he says can be taken at face value, he clearly has a great deal of technical know-how and has given much thought to how to run his bunker. Goodman delivers his lines in the careful rhythms of a man who measures everything twice, but there’s always a simmering undercurrent of rage underneath the surface. It’s as if Howard speaks that way to avoid losing control and killing someone. This allied to Goodman’s physical size and booming bass voice makes for a memorable villain. If you were trapped underground with this guy, you’d probably consider Michelle’s plan to hold your breath and take your chances outside.
Howard makes this movie rather like The Witch, a thriller where the monsters outside are real, but the true threats are the human ones inside. First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg has kept the alien invasion from Cloverfield, but he’s thankfully ditched the found-footage look in favor of a more traditional format, so you don’t keep asking why the characters are still filming while they’re fighting or fleeing for their lives. He and his three screenwriters (one of whom is Whiplash filmmaker Damien Chazelle) organize this thing tautly, so that even Michelle’s background as an aspiring clothing designer comes into play in an unexpected way. (Though having said that, the bottle of Scotch that she impulsively picks up at the beginning reappears a bit too conveniently near the end.) I could have wished for more inventive use of the bunker’s space, but the director strikes the right balance between the tension and the tedium that inevitably sets in with these characters being stuck in a space for a long period with nothing to do but keep themselves alive. He even squeezes some suspense out of a game of Pictionary, when Howard appears to know about Michelle’s escape plan and losing his temper over it.
I’m happy that Winstead finally gives an excellent performance in a movie that lots of people are seeing. Her leading turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World went unnoticed when that brilliant comedy flopped at the box office, and the alcoholism drama Smashed failed to draw an audience even though her work there deserved an Oscar nomination. Her athleticism serves her well in a scene when Michelle has to wriggle through a ventilation duct to reboot the bunker’s air filtering system, as well as the climax when she makes a break for it. However, she also gives the role the edginess of someone whose antenna is always up because her hard life experiences have taught her to always expect violence from people around her. She delivers a harrowing monologue when Michelle describes seeing a father hit his kid in a store. When Michelle finally makes her bid for freedom, she’s not just preserving her own life, she’s breaking a lifelong pattern. That emphasis on character is just one thing that raises 10 Cloverfield Lane above the science-fiction thrillers and slasher flicks that it comes from.