You can keep your Jason Voorhies and Freddy Kreuger. To me, nothing is more terrifying than an overweight, middle-aged, gun-loving, white man obsessed with the “impending apocalypse.” Whether it’s barfy nonsense about chemtrails or proof of a Martian invasion, AM-radio-style conspiracies have given us a booming “doomsday bunker” industry and now 10 Cloverfield Lane, a tautly claustrophobic gem seemingly broadcast from inside The Twilight Zone. Held steady on the backs of two deeply committed performances, this sorta-kinda-not-really sequel to the POV monster movie Cloverfield delivers satisfying thrills for those willing to suspend the living hell out of their disbelief.
The briefest of prologues shows us Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she skips out on her fiancée and promptly gets into a wicked flippy car accident. She awakens in an underground dungeon guarded by Howard (John Goodman). As a general rule, waking up in your underpants chained to a wall sucks, so Michelle flips her shit and tries to stab her way out. Only, as Howard tells her, there is no “out.” That is to say, he’s positive that there has been a chemical or extraterrestrial attack; the air is now poison, and they have to just “VHS and chill” for a year or two until it’s safe to leave again.
Soon, Michelle discovers she’s got another roommate: the kindly hillbilly Emmett (John Gallagher Jr). The two begin discussing rather pressing issues like, “Is this really the end of days or are we Howard’s fleshy playthings?” The tension gets ratcheted up every 15 minutes or so, as their captor/savior flickers between psychotic, odd-but-well-intended and “something else entirely.” Director Dan Trachtenberg not only elicits killer turns from his two leads but manages to avoid boring audiences despite only using three rooms for much of the runtime. That is, right up until… well, we can’t talk about that, but suffice it to say the ending will be hit or miss for folks.
For me, as Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds would say, “It’s a bingo!” That’s thanks in no small part to the expressive anime eyes of Winstead, who uses sparse dialogue but ample physical expression to communicate a fully formed character arc, from scared and directionless to a badass determined to survive. She’s equally met by Goodman, who effortlessly vacillates between earning our sympathy and our terror. Scenes with the two of them finding the edges of each other are as captivating as whatever it is that does or doesn’t lurk outside the bunker doors.
Spoiler-free is the way to be, but that means the critical final sequence can’t really be mentioned, which is really only unfortunate because the reaction to that is going to be the litmus test for whether folks love the flick or just really like it. And those do seem to be the only two choices. Much like Ex Machina did in the spring of last year, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a fresh, well-acted, sci-fi-influenced little nugget of goodness more than capable of nourishing those of us who long for the dulcet tones of Rod Serling welcoming us to a dimension of sound, sight and mind.
This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.