10 Cloverfield Lane takes a lateral approach to franchising material. Instead of a straight sequel or prequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, this intimate thriller, resplendent with Hitchcockian stylisation and score, plays like a thematic offshoot. The new story’s once again centred on an attack by a malevolent unknown and the social breakdown that results, but Dan Trachtenberg’s film takes a very different tack. Instead of grand disaster captured on a personal level using the low-tech – the now ubiquitous found footage format, Lane’s a small scale chamber piece that ultilises the very best tools in the filmmaker’s arsenal; careful composition, graceful camera movement, precision cutting and creepy orchestral support, here from Bear McCreary. It’s a movie lover’s movie then; a reminder that tight direction and sinister strings remain the perfect antidote to computer generated slaughter. Less isn’t just more, it’s much much more.
The new story’s reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode and is all the better for it. In a wordless prologue, Mary Elizabeth Winstead ends her relationship, packs a few clothes and heads out into the country, only to be ran off the road and awoken in the basement of John Goodman’s subterranean bunker complex; the kind built by ultra-paranoid survivalists. Winstead’s informed that all life above has perished in “an attack”, and only the two of them and local hick, John Gallagher Jr, remain. Naturally she’s both terrified and skeptical, and thus the movie, at least at first, turns on the question of whether Goodman, perfectly cast to be both physically imposing and perpetually unhinged, befitting a man who claims to believe in an alien genocide, is mad, bad or simply on the edge.
Thus you have the ingredients for an intimate suspense play, executed with great cinematic virtuosity by Trachtenberg, who keeps the various possibilities alive as long as the screenplay will plausibly allow, metering out twists whenever a gear change is required. With just three characters to play with, performances matter and they’re all excellent. Winstead, second billing here but undoubtedly the star of the show, exudes just the right amount of vulnerability, guile and creative intelligence. Sure, that makes her the perfect captive in this particular situation, as though the movie Gods had placed her there with the requisite skills and interests to aid her situation, but what do you want, plausibility or plot advancement? Meanwhile, John Gallagher Jr, as the local man rewarded for his help in building the bunker complex with a space therein, has a character nicely calibrated to irritate Goodman’s earnest and ultra-serious former military man, while rousing a protective zeal for Winstead that’s teased as both proxy paternalism (the big man’s daughter is gone, presumed dead) and sexual jealously.
10 Cloverfield Lane works because it makes the best of its stripped back concept. The nebulous external threat, which the movie leaves to the imagination until the final five minutes, is neatly used as a counterpoint to the internal danger faced by Winstead and the question of whether she can ever truly be safe under Goodman’s roof. Goodman, for his part, manages to build a complexed and arguably conflicted character virtually from suggestion alone. In fact, so good is he at fleshing out Howard’s ambiguous, often threatening nature, coupled with his absolute belief that greater horrors lie above, that even when the movie tips us off to a sinister past, we still can’t be sure that Winstead wouldn’t be better off where she is.
When a movie can do that under the circumstances portrayed here, all concerned can say they’ve got the tone and economy of storytelling just right. On this evidence, if each tale can be suitably different, a return to Cloverfield’s post-9/11 universe of otherworldly threats would be very welcome.