A sideways sequel to the alien-invasion thriller Cloverfield, as well as a less psychologically astute variation on the great Take Shelter, 10 Cloverfield Lane envisions a scenario of intense claustrophobia. After losing consciousness in a car crash, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a well-stocked bunker, where she is held captive by a conspiracy theorist (John Goodman) who insists that some sort of large-scale attack has poisoned the outside atmosphere. We know, from Cloverfield, that an attack has indeed occurred. But does that necessarily mean that Howard, the Goodman character, is trustworthy? Can more than one story be at play here?
If 10 Cloverfield Lane has a distinguishing characteristic, it’s this ability to function within different genres simultaneously — or, at least shift fairly deftly between them. A psychological thriller for the most part, the movie also takes dips into horror territory and, a bit less successfully, character study. And without spoiling things, I’ll just say it returns to its alien-invasion inspiration near the end. As a feature-length tease, then — where we in the audience are never quite sure how the plot will turn because we don’t know what particular genre beats to predict — the movie is good fun.
Winstead, as Michelle, strikes a nice balance between vulnerability and bravery, so that you root for her even as you’re genuinely scared for her. But this is Goodman’s show. 10 Cloverfield Lane makes good use of his defining quality: the way his folksy, sing-songy voice is at odds with the power of his imposing girth. In some of Goodman’s most memorable performances, particularly those given for the Coen brothers, this is intentionally exploited. Think of Walter’s hot temper in The Big Lebowski or the horrible, violent secret the congenial Charlie has in Barton Fink. Goodman plays with that persona expertly here, lulling us with his geniality one moment and unnerving us with his physicality the next. (Director Dan Trachtenberg emphasizes this by framing Goodman in two basic ways: in close-up, where he overwhelms the screen; or at rest and from afar, in a pose of cozy domesticity.)
One thing that Goodman and Trachtenberg fail to do, however, is imbue Howard with meaning beyond his value as a potential bogeyman. Winstead’s Michelle, similarly, exists largely as an imperiled heroine (despite a prologue that quickly tries to do some character sketching). 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t give us much sense of how either of its main characters is particularly processing their fear. Neither does it function as some sort of larger parable about societal paranoia. It’s best enjoyed for its weirdness as a Hollywood product, then, and for the unexpected directions it’s willing to go.