10 Cloverfield Lane is unforgettable cinema.
J.J. Abrams calls 10 Cloverfield Lane a “blood relative” of the 2008 found footage creature feature he produced. That relative turns out to be a crazy uncle ranting about the end of the world.
Howard (John Goodman) is a conspiracy theory connoisseur who doesn’t believe in waiting until the bombs are dropping to build a bunker. In fact, he’s spent years crafting an elaborately cozy one under his backyard shed. But what good is surviving the apocalypse in a pimped-out bunker if you don’t have someone to share it with?
Problem is, that lucky companion didn’t have much say in the matter. After getting into a terrible car wreck, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up on a thin mattress in a windowless room, an IV in her arm, her leg in a brace and shackled to the wall. Howard brings her a breakfast spread and claims to have saved her life, before jamming shut the shrieking metal door on his way out. Despite what first appears to be a Room-meets-Misery scenario (with just a dash of Saw), Michelle’s thwarted escape attempt leads her to discover Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a chilled-out guy of similar age who allays some of her fear when he informs her that he has no intention to flee the bunker—he actually had to fight Howard to let him in. There might really be something insidious in the air. Everyone else might actually be afflicted by a skin-melting plague.
Of course, nothing is ever certain in this claustrophobic thriller. Michelle and Emmett uncover troubling signs about the off-kilter Howard, who Goodman plays with an absolutely spellbinding blend of paranoid menace, fussiness and a warped sense of integrity. Whereas Cloverfield relied on the overt horror of a city-demolishing leviathan, 10 Cloverfield Lane ups the psychological horror as Howard’s intentions become blurred and the truth behind his claims about a chemical or nuclear attack hideously tainting the air continues to pitch back and forth between suspicious and seemingly confirmed. While the film relies on jolts, it doesn’t lean on lazy jump-scares. The three strong acting performances carry this movie with very few people in it. Though saturated with tension, there’s also a healthy dose of levity that never feels forced. And though it’s a picture that’s as reliant on heady twists as an M. Night Shyamalan flick, the big reveals don’t contain a whiff of gimmickry.
For as much viral promotion as this film is getting, it lives up the hype. It’s not perfect; there are stretches where the psychological elements could dig deeper but instead opt for more tangible suspense. One could argue that the only character we ever truly learn anything about is Howard, even though Michelle is our protagonist and Emmett is the most likable. For as bonkers as its third act is, this movie could’ve easily gone darker. But there’s a restraint in this approach—giving just enough to raise the stakes and propel the weirdness—that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane unforgettable cinema. Do yourself a favor and avoid any spoilers like the plague.