Don’t be distracted by the title of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” which puts you in the mind of “Cloverfield,” the excellent filmed-by-a-bystander monster movie from 2008. What connection, if any, this film has to that one doesn’t matter, and knowing (or guessing) ahead of time won’t help you enjoy it any more.
No, you should stay focused on the matter at hand: a masterfully suspenseful mystery thriller set in a doomsday bunker, with a story that conjures “Misery,” “Alien,” “The Twilight Zone,” several Steven Spielberg movies, and at least one episode of “Breaking Bad.” (YOU’LL KNOW THE ONE.) Directed with astonishing confidence by first-timer Dan Trachtenberg, the film uses a deceptively simple premise, carefully scripted (by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle) so that no information is wasted and each new piece of it furthers the mystery. What happened before? What’s happening now? What’s true and what isn’t? And what connection, if any, do the true things have to each other?
The situation is this: a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), injured in a car wreck, wakes up chained in a concrete bunker owned and operated by one Howard (John Goodman), a gruff, bear-like man who says he only wants to keep her safe. He says there’s been an attack of some kind, that everyone not in a place like this is dead or dying. He doesn’t know a lot of details other than that the air out there is unbreathable. The doors are barricaded, and he’s armed. Nobody’s getting into this bunker, and nobody’s getting out.
Also present is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a harmless-seeming scruffy dude about Michelle’s age, also injured, who helped Howard build the bunker — a multi-room, rather home-like dwelling, once you get used to it — and then sought refuge here when whatever happened out there happened. He doesn’t know much either. But they have enough food, water, power, entertainment, and air filtration to stay here indefinitely.
Michelle is in disbelief at what she’s being told, though she realizes that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true. But it’s hard to confirm that all life outside is dead when you aren’t allowed to go outside. And there are little discrepancies between what she’s being told and what she’s observing. Winstead’s performance during all of this uncertainty is terrific, taking us through the mind of a smart, resourceful, brave-but-not-superheroic woman who’s insistent on making her own choices. When she crawls through an air duct and you automatically think of Ripley in “Alien,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to put those characters on the same level.
John Goodman is great, too, using his physical mass (he’s bigger here than he’s been lately) to make Howard an imposing force in a confined space, even when he’s calm. Howard is a doomsday prepper and, as Emmett puts it privately, “a blackbelt in conspiracy theory.” As we start to think the issue isn’t Howard’s sincerity so much as his sanity, Goodman uses our natural inclination to like him to throw us off balance. It’s a subtle performance, full of details that take on new meaning in hindsight as we learn more about the character.
I wouldn’t call this a horror film, though it certainly has some white-knuckle moments and a few elements of scary movies. Stylistically, it bears no resemblance to the film it shares an SEO keyword with (rest easy, sufferers of shaky-cam nausea). What’s remarkable is how Trachtenberg keeps the tension and interest level up despite being about three characters in a single setting. Some movies of that description feel like stage plays (which isn’t a bad thing), but this doesn’t. This feels like a movie, one that uses editing, camera movement, and other cinematic tools to tell (very effectively and efficiently) a story that happens to be set in one place. You don’t need a large cast or a variety of locations to produce skin-crawling drama.
A- (1 hr., 45 min.; )