Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, a young woman who we meet in a nearly wordless opening as she frantically grabs her things, and appears to flee her own apartment. Her flight is interrupted by Howard (John Goodman), a mysterious man who either abducts or saves Michelle depending on which character you ask, storing her in the deep recesses of his underground bunker. The shelter's only other inhabitant is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a small-town dunce who agrees with Howard that above the surface is the last place anyone would want to be, suggesting that some sort of doomsday might be afoot. As the three attempt to wait out an unseen apocalypse, Michelle's ever-roving eyes pick up one clue after another, tirelessly searching for more concrete information, or a big enough opening to make a break for it.
10 Cloverfield Lane marks the feature directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, and based on this evidence, we should probably get used to hearing his name. From first frame to last, the 34-year-old imbues his film with a remarkable sense of urgency; where other pictures of this persuasion prefer to dangle carrots on the screen to ensure that the audience is nice and hungry by the closing passages, Lane gobbles up every delicious treat it finds before moving directly onto the next, creating a constant flurry of excitement through rule-breaking and discovery. Trachtenberg's team is his match every step of the way, from Bear McCreary's ever-percolating electronica score, to Jeff Cutter's curious, caffeinated camera work, and Stefan Grube's masterclass in the editor's room, which is sharp enough to cut diamonds. The film wears its PG-13 rating proudly, largely avoiding the gore, torture, and rampant violence that one would almost naturally expect from this type of story, but don't think for one second this diminishes its omnipresent intensity. Your heart will still be pounding long after the credits roll.
While each and every facet of what's going on behind the camera is of rarified quality, it's the thespians in front of it who will undoubtably take the lion's share of the credit. Gallagher Jr. is charming and natural in a largely thankless roll, but his character is forced to the backseat by the pair of electric performances at the flick's center. Now 63-years-old and a veteran of the film industry for over three decades, John Goodman delivers some of the best work of his career, always dancing the impossibly thin line between mania and clarity. As expertly written as Howard is, the film wouldn't work without Goodman's intimidating physical presence, and a myriad of expressions that undulate from passive to downright hysterical. The guy's a national treasure, and while we should count ourselves blessed to see him in such a juicy role so late into his career, Winstead is only just getting started. Best known as the object of Michael Cera's affection in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the up-and-comer is finally allowed to spread her wings in a part that would remind us all of the resourceful badassery of Ellen Ripley had Star Wars: The Force Awakens not so recently repurposed that character in the form of Daisy Ridley's Rey. Quick to think and even quicker to act, Winstead possesses the rare ability to convey tremendous intelligence with nothing more than a simple glance.
Her brains and ingenuity keep us invested even as the story neglects to provide her with much backstory. Same goes for Howard, who will undoubtably be seen as a lunatic by certain viewers, but whose sharp scientific mind and knack for reading people make him less of a monster, and more of an ideal foil. Most thriller/horror movies like this struggle to present us with a single competent character, but this one has two, creating a wonderfully imaginative game of cat-and-mouse wherein you're never quite certain who owns the upper hand. No, 10 Cloverfield Lane will not be a Best Picture nominee at next year's Oscars, and it's also not the type of film folks rush out and implore you to see. The stakes aren't high enough, the stars aren't big enough, and it lacks an entire back catalogue of lead-up films that tend to power the broadest type of audience excitement. It's a shame, because Trachtenberg's film is roughly 187-times more engaging and fun than almost all the flicks I just described, and it doesn't need the world to topple over to keep your hands balled into fists. The creative team behind the film certainly doesn't hurt, but at the end of the day, what 10 Cloverfield Lane most effectively reminds us is this; some times the only thing you need to tell a damn good story is to have a damn good story to tell.