“10 Cloverfield Lane” might be director Dan Trachtenberg’s debut feature-length film, but if you’re fond of games and fan films, you’ve already known his work for a while longer than you think. Based on Valve’s “Portal” series, Trachtenberg’s “Portal: No Escape” wasn’t just an ode to the game’s physics and world-building; it had a fascinatingly grim, and relatively less humorous spin on the source’s guinea-pig-in-a-lab narrative. By acknowledging that, it’s easy to see why producer J. J. Abrams chose him to direct the sophomore installment in the Cloverfield series-the film deals with isolation, and the shaky future escape holds.
Not unlike his short, “10 Cloverfield Lane” opens with protagonist Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; “Smashed,” 2012) escaping one hellscape, and inadvertently falling into another, and it’s what really makes him the perfect choice for this film. His pitch-perfect visual translation of containment, and manipulation-both environmental and psychological-helps a whole lot with the movie’s primary image system motif: the mental ripple effect of claustrophobia. Michelle’s suffocation drives her away from a relationship into an unwitting collision course to Howard (John Goodman; “Speed Racer,” 2008), the man who rescued her from an accident—or so it seems.
Winstead’s heroine isn’t here to not do anything though. She’s keenly perceptive and knowledgeable, if naturally petrified, of her surroundings. Her only companion is the bumbling Emmett (John Gallager Jr.; “Short Term 12,” 2013), who she maybe-sort-of-not-really confides in (and conspires with) to get to the bottom of the situation. Gallagher Jr. balances his awkwardness with a sharp wit and dark humor, bringing forth a respectably multi-dimensional character that doesn’t feel like it’s there to fill time or give comic relief. The two play off each other’s strengths effortlessly, amplifying the pep and swing in this otherwise nightmarish narrative arc.
Stepping toe-to-toe with Winstead’s head-turning act is Goodman, whose performance is off the charts—you’ll never be able to figure out if he’s creepy, traumatized, a plain-old-Good-Samaritan, or a dangerous human. Together, the three push forth an incredible, character-driven thriller that keeps you on your toes till the last minute (okay, the last 15 minutes). This is where a significant nit comes in that a lot of people would love to pick—a rather substantial portion of its climax takes a direction that may feel unearned. This wouldn’t be entirely wrong—the film wasn’t really supposed to be a “Cloverfield” addition.
Written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, “10 Cloverfield Lane” was initially (aptly) titled The Cellar. While Damien Chazelle (“La La Land,” 2016) being hired for a few rewrites might point to it, it’s still not entirely clear when did it transform from a contained horror thriller to the second chapter in Abrams’ monster-verse. This decision doesn’t generally bode well with the quality of a film. Mila Kunis was slated to star in a movie she may have thought was initially titled “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die”—the movie was later released as a direct-to-video sequel of Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” because reasons. It’s fair to assume that the studios aim merely to mooch off what they would like to turn into a brand.
Trachtenberg and the writers aren’t really about that route, though—this is a film that gleefully revels in its own expressionist undertones, and the fact that it’s a part of the “Cloverfield” universe only goes to benefit from that. From abuse, to gaslighting and the Stockholm Syndrome, and the resultant post-traumatic stress that comes off it, the entire film boasts purpose, passion, and palpability. And with the combined trifecta of winning performances by Winstead, Goodman, and Gallagher Jr., it’s quite hard to go wrong, really. And for a whole lot of it, it doesn’t.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is an excellent thriller that not only serves to expand upon the ripple effect caused by the Cloverfield monster but also ends up being an excellent genre film, made by people who understand and love filmmaking. I’ll go out on a limb and say this—it’s one of the best movies of 2016 and an absolute must-watch for both fans and newcomers to the “Cloverfield” mythos.