Review: Great performances make ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ a cut above most thrillers

If you walk into the theater expecting a direct sequel to Cloverfield, you may be disappointed, but I'd expect most audiences to be quite satisfied with the smart, character-driven thriller that is 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Economically told from the start, the film moves beautifully. This is a strong feature debut for Dan Trachtenberg, working from a script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, and a beautiful showcase for three very good actors. It is simple, it is direct, and it is impressive. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees her marriage after something happens with her husband, and as she's on the road, upset, she is in a terrible car accident. When she wakes up, she is in a bunker owned by Howard (John Goodman), a farmer, who tells her that there has been some sort of attack on the surface, and they are unable to leave now. There is one other person, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) in the bunker with them. Things go badly. That's pretty much it, and yet, using that very simple template, 10 Cloverfield Lane delivers a terrific piece of entertainment, tense and smart and concise.

First, there's the cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings an innate intelligence to whatever she plays, and it's served her well in films in the past. Here, she makes Michelle a formidable presence in every scene. There's not a moment after she wakes up where Michelle is anything less than completely focused on her own survival. She is always thinking, always looking around her, always absorbing details. When the time comes to act, she thinks quickly, improvises, and never hesitates. I was rooting for her all the way through because she keeps making the right decision. It doesn't always work, but that's simply because she's human and because Howard is a pretty powerful obstacle in his own right. I love John Goodman, but he isn't always given room to show off just how good he is. This might be the scariest he's been since Barton Fink, and it's because he lets you see behind the human being mask that Howard wears. Sure, he seems human. Sure, he acts like a normal person. But there's something much stranger living behind those eyes, and in those moments where Howard's pretense falters, Goodman is terrifying and real. Gallagher, who was so great in Short Term 12, has a very difficult middle ground to occupy here, and he makes the most of every scene. He makes you guess what's going on with Emmett, and he manages to play ambiguity without tipping his hand. All three of them bring a sense of inner life to the film, which makes it interesting to see the three of them locked into this very small space, having to contend with one another.

Jeff Cutter's been working as a while now as a cinematographer, but this is the best thing he's done so far. He's a great collaborator for Trachtenberg, who makes the most of the bunker. It's not uncommon for films like this, all set in one location, to lose steam at a certain point, but Trachtenberg has a real knack for geography. Like Green Room, which I fell in love with at last year's Toronto Film Festival, this is an exceptional example of how you can use a limitation as a strength. Trachtenberg lays out the bunker for you clearly, and he makes it claustrophobic in all the right ways. There are films that are clearly built out of miles of coverage, but every scene here is shot with a clean visual command that is always communicating the underlying ideas of the scene. If you were put off by the handheld aesthetic of Cloverfield, don't worry; this is classically composed and there's a very sleek overall visual approach. Bear McCreary's score is powerful and percussive when it needs to be, and Ramsey Avery's production design, along with the set decoration by Michelle Marchand II and Kellie Jo Tinney, makes the bunker where we spend 90% of the film a real place.

About that other 10%… my thinking on the way this film resolves has evolved even since this morning, when I taped the video that is embedded at the top of this review. While this is not a direct sequel to Cloverfield in a conventional sense, I'm not entirely sure what I saw at the end of this movie, and that's sort of the point. Because we experience things only from Michelle's point of view, there's still some room to debate the exact nature of what we see here, as well as the exact nature of what we saw in the original Cloverfield. They may in fact be connected, and that ambiguity is, more than anything, the signature of this series so far. We may have a broad strokes picture of what we see here, but there's certainly not a direct explanation of anything. No one shows up to put a name to any of what we're seeing, and it's a world where it feels like a lot of things are possible. I enjoy the crazy left turn this thing takes, and again, Winstead is the key to selling it all. She makes it feel suitably insane, and she reacts the way a real person would. Most importantly, her final choice in the film brings it all to a satisfying thematic conclusion. I look forward to any further expansion of the Cloverfield universe, and whatever Trachtenberg does next, and I suspect word of mouth will make this a solid and well-deserved hit for Paramount.

10 Cloverfield Lane is in theaters now.