Great Goodman and Winning Winstead shine in a surprising, effective, out-of-left-field thriller
A sequel to 2008's found-footage creature feature? Not really. At least, it doesn't appear so. That ambiguity is one of many reasons it pays to watch this surprise thriller knowing as little as possible before hand. Brimming with mystery and replete with clues, signs and ultimately unanswered questions; Dan Trachtenberg's debut feature will keep you guessing up to and after the credits have rolled.
The spoiler-free synopsis is that a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), after apparently leaving her boyfriend and heading out on the road, awakes to find herself injured and chained inside a mysterious underground bunker. She's the patient -and apparent prisoner- of 'Howard' (John Goodman), an ostensibly barmy and sometimes volatile conspiracy nut who is convinced he's rescued her from an unseen cataclysm on the surface. After an abortive escape attempt (seen in the trailer) adds veracity to Howard's claim, Michelle settles in for the long haul along with fellow 'guest' Emmett (John Gallagher Jr). Yet things aren't necessarily all they seem. What are Howard's real intentions toward Michelle? What has previously transpired inside the bunker? What's happened to the outside world? And what role does Emmett play in all this?
What plays out like a Hitchcockian type mystery thriller is only partly resolved before the film wrongfoots us again with it's bold final act. And it's this last sequence that will draw more direct comparisons to Cloverfield, as well as sharply dividing audiences. Some will find it tacked on, gratuitous and even a cheap-shot. However I found it added an extra layer to the preceeding mystery, as well as giving us some quite exiting pay-off. It also concludes Michelle's character arc in true 'Ripley' style.
Confidently directed by Trachtenberg, with an eerie score by Bear McCreary, and with some decent cinematography, this is arguably a superior film experience ro Cloverfield's shakycam gimmickry; with only the slightly saggy second act slowing down an otherwise uninterrupted thrill ride. But it's the performances from the trio of main characters that are most impressive. John Goodman is especially noteworthy in arguably his most complex, creepy and powerful role yet. Unpredictable, menacing, and at times sympathetic; his role isn't dissimilar to Kathy Bates' chilling Annie Wilkes in Misery (with which this also shares some 'confinement horror' DNA). Winstead is equally impressive, building on her previous competent leading-lady credentials in The Thing (2011); her character Michelle can be added to the ever swelling ranks of strong female protagonists we're been seeing of late. She's intelligent, resourceful, and a born survivor; and Winstead plays her with just the right mix of authenticity, vulnerability and guile. You'll be rooting for her from start to finish.
So how does this compare, if at all, to Cloverfield? and where does it fit in with that story? From here we're into spoiler territory:
Despite the idea that Howard is the real 'monster' of the film, there are in fact alien creatures in 10 Clovefield Lane. Yet the attack referred to by Howard isn't the Cloverfield monster, or anything like it. But it is another alien incursion and the creatures are just as threatening (they could easily be from the same planet as the aliens in War of the Worlds 2005). So it's emphatically not a sequel in any conventional sense. It's not a prequel either, or (as many speculated) a 'side-quel' taking place concurrently in a different part of America. This was admittedly my first thought: with both attacks being part of some over-arching coordinated alien invasion, and the two films are simply tales of this from different perspectives. A nice idea, but the evidence is against it. Michelle's smartphone for example confirms that we are in the present day, and not 2008. This is a completely stand alone tale, although there's connective tissue (JJ Abrams calls it a 'blood relative') partly alluded to in the marketing campaign. From the same creative place then, just not necessarily in the same universe. Think of them as feature length Twilight Zone episodes.
This leads me to wonder what could be in store for a possible third entry in the Cloverfield anthology. Hopefully it will be as different to its predecessors as they are to each other. And if it's as good as 10 Cloverfield Lane, we'll be in for a treat.