It’s clear early on that 10 Cloverfield Lane, the contrived yet thrilling prequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, is not the shaky-cam spectacle that its predecessor was. Debut director Dan Trachtenberg has made a different sort of movie — small-scale and psychological, less Godzilla than Misery. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), after leaving her fiancé, wrecks her car on a Southern highway, tumbling down a hill into a ravine. She awakes days later, chained up in an underground bunker by a heavy-set survivalist farmer with a glued-on grimace and dead calm demeanor. The owner, Howard (John Goodman), is convinced some disaster has destroyed humanity, and that by keeping Michelle prisoner, ostensibly protecting her from the toxic fallout, he’s actually doing her a favor. Regardless, he’s a control-freak loner and conspiracy nut who’s so proud that his paranoia was validated that he takes Michelle as his keepsake prize. Much of the movie revolves around whether she’s a survivor of some mysterious holocaust or a madman’s hostage, or both.
The bunker itself is like Martha Stewart’s prison cell, complete with kitchen and TV room, board games and a shower curtain with a cute duck illustration. Goodman, always better as a comedian than a dramatic actor (he hosted SNL eight times but never received an Oscar nomination), is good as a frustrated would-be patriarch. Howard, a perversion of Goodman’s role on Roseanne, is searching for someone with whom to play house; he’s the spiritual brother to Annie Wilkes in the aforementioned Misery. The actor is less convincing as an unstable maniac and apocalyptic soothsayer. With her round girl-next-door visage, Winstead makes a solid woman-in-peril and shines particularly when Michelle is required to tacitly solve problems, sometimes on the fly. It isn’t easy for an actor to convey that her character is thinking her way out of a predicament.
Winstead is asked to do that often, because Trachtenberg aspires to what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema”, or visual storytelling. With little-to-no dialogue early on, the director communicates information in ways that are sometimes quite effective, as when Michelle discovers an urgent message carved into a bunker window. (Written on the exterior, it means someone out there needs help, but on the inside, it means someone in the bunker, at some point, tried desperately to reach the outside world.) Other times, the visuals are more cliched, like a close-up of the engagement ring Michelle leaves behind for her boyfriend, or a serendipitously placed road sign illustrating her options in a trite way. Trachtenberg is best at mounting suspense, as when Michelle must crawl through a vent to restart the air filter. Another time, following an escape attempt, she comes face-to-face with the potential horror lurking just outside her grudging sanctuary.
The director has a better sense for individual sequences than for holistic narrative. He’s let down, too, by a script written by committee and heavy on contrivances. You can bet the one miscellaneous item Michelle remembers to bring from her apartment will come in handy in the final act. Also, she and Howard are joined in the bunker by a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) The charismatic Gallagher Jr. makes the most of the character — an amenable country kid who sought refuge in the wrong place — but he’s really playing a walking-talking plot device. When needed, Emmet gives Michelle the scoop on Howard or on a pertinent, local criminal case. At one point, he recounts a tale of personal woe that’ll galvanize her in a hopeless, climactic moment. Even more, as the principle comic relief, he’s a superfluous buffer between she and Howard, someone to reassure us that things between them won’t get too icky or too banal.
The only connection to the original Cloverfield, that I could tell, was the finale, a scene that, to be honest, felt out-of-place, as if it were airlifted in from a different movie. For the most part, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane works as a tense and claustrophobic thriller. That said, it’s most interesting, to me, as a metaphor for domesticity. Michelle literally wakes up trapped in a nightmare of household Hell. Like in a Twilight Zone episode, her initial marital dilemma gets mirrored and transmogrified by the film’s subsequent unnatural events. She’s presented with two simultaneous visions: one of regression, a return to the patriarchal womb with a domineering father-figure; and of progression, a potential future stuck with a fat old husband who’s off his rocker. Both might be preferable to the mysterious terror waiting outside. As bourgeois runaway then post-apocalyptic captive, Michelle embodies the universal conflict between the safe monotony of home and the exciting uncertainty of freedom.