In defining suspense and how it differs from surprise, Alfred Hitchcock once famously offered two slightly different scenarios. In the first, two people are conversing with each other at a café when, suddenly, a bomb goes off. That’s surprise. In the second, the audience is aware there’s a bomb under the table and, as the oblivious patrons eat and gab, viewers clinch their seats in anticipation of the inevitable explosion. That’s suspense.
In the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s John Goodman who serves as the proverbial bomb. Imposing and gruff, the actor’s inherently magnetic, charismatic persona is a thin veneer to the character’s rumbling sea of Walter Sobchak-ian fury and rage. You never quite know when and where he’s going to explode. Whatever you take away from the final product, know that this is a role Goodman was born to play. After years spent quietly establishing himself as one of film and TV’s go-to character actors, it’s fantastic to see the actor receive a big-screen role that truly capitalizes on his outsized talents.
The story opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), deciding to exit a relationship gone south and head for the hills. This entire opening sequence plays out like a beautiful, near wordless, mini-symphony with Bear McCreary’s fantastic score soundtracking Michelle’s internal anxiety and indecision—up until the point where her car is run off the road. She later awakens in an underground bunker, her broken leg chained to a pipe. It’s here we meet Goodman’s Howard, who—throughout the course of the film—alternates between captor and caretaker.
Howard informs Michelle that the planet is currently under attack by some unknown force and that the atmosphere outside the bunker has been contaminated. Due to his background in satellites, he saw the writing on the wall and constructed the bunker as a safe measure. Upon seeing Michelle’s crashed car, he decided to be a Good Samaritan and take her to safety. Michelle is not convinced, but statements from Howard’s bunker mate, Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.)—a goofball burnout who helped him build his fortress—as well as a few choice images of the outside area lead her to believe there might be a nugget of truth to what the man is saying. And thus the film weaves its central mystery—is Howard a well-meaning, if ill-tempered, survivalist or something much more sinister?
At its core, 10 Cloverfield Lane effectively works as an extended, modern-day riff on a Twilight Zone episode, a program producer J.J. Abrams holds near and dear to his heart. That’s not to say the resulting film feels like a lo-fi TV installment inorganically pumped up for the big screen. Quite the contrary, despite its enclosed setting and limited speaking parts, the film is very much a cinematic experience, with director Dan Trachtenberg (in his feature film debut) milking each interaction and set piece for maximum impact. What’s more, the script—the screenwriting debut from Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken alongside Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle—understands that sometimes the best way to raise tension is to allow it be deflated by humor (several tense sequences end with a chuckle rather than a gasp) before ramping it back up again. This well-calculated back-and-forth makes the film consistently nail-biting, yet never in a way that feels repetitive. By the time the film reaches its dramatic final stretch, the narrative has successfully escalated to a point wherein the crazier elements fit right in with the more grounded ones.
As our surrogate, Winstead once again proves why she’s one of the industry’s best young talents. In addition to completely selling the fear and confusion that comes with finding oneself in such a predicament, she also radiates intelligence and resourcefulness. And as the film moves into the more action-heavy latter half, she proves herself to be more than capable in handling the physical demands required of her. Likewise, Gallagher brings humanity and gravitas to a character that, in the wrong hands, risks coming across as a mere jokester.
As evidenced by some pre-release interviews with Abrams, those seeking a major tie-in to 2008’s Cloverfield will likely come away disappointed. Those simply seeking a thrilling, fantastic time at the movies, however, will be more than satisfied. 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like one of those films that was always out there in the ether, but it took the right people wrangling the proper elements to fully piece it together. It’s nice to see that, when he’s not spearheading major franchises, Abrams takes time to serve as a Roger Corman-type figure by showcasing new directing talent, as is the case with Trachtenberg here and Maya Forbes with last year’s Infinitely Polar Bear. After this demonstration, it’s safe to say that Trachtenberg has even more high-profile endeavors in his immediate future. Fans of Spielberg-like ingenuity and Hitchcockian suspense will marvel at the sense of craft and skill on display. Certainly, had he still been alive to see this, the Master of Suspense would be nodding his head in approval.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.