VIEWERS may consider it somewhat fortunate that 10 Cloverfield Lane does not require a viewing of the original Cloverfield to watch. 10CL’s much maligned B-movie-esque prequel did little to capture the hearts of cinema goers and critics alike, despite being one of the better found-footage movies to date, and was only saved, arguably, by its excellent and terrifying monster design. A monster again steals the show here, although it is not a giant, ape-like Clover this time, but a giant, ape-like John Goodman.
The film kicks off with Michelle (Mary Winstead), a resourceful, intelligent woman who successfully avoids any serious gender clichés to become a believable ‘survivor’. Knocked unconscious by a car crash, she wakes up chained to a wall in Howard’s (John Goodman) doomsday bunker. Howard claims to have saved her from an undefined apocalyptic event, which viewers will assume is caused by a giant monster gnawing its way through the cast of Cloverfield, cheered on by anyone who had to sit through their acting. I say “assume”, because the truth of ‘what is going on outside’ remains very much in the dark, the chronology of the universe never revealed until late in the sequence, and even then to some debate.
Is Howard lying? Confirmations and negations of his trustworthiness ebb and flow throughout the film, as revelation meets contradicting revelation leaving the viewer with little clue to the answer. The bunker’s other dweller, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), seems to confirm Howard is telling the truth, before telling us that his arm is in a cast because Howard tried to stop him entering the bunker. Why, if Howard was so willing to save Michelle, did he try to refuse Emmett entry? Why is Howard so protective over Michelle? And why, most unsettlingly, did he feel the need to build a cell (Michelle’s bedroom) in his one-man doomsday bunker? This, and many other questions arise as the film progresses.
Howard is at once saviour and antagonist, a quiet and caring man ready to explode at any moment, a practical thinker with the ever-lingering threat of insanity fraying the edges. It’s a subdued performance by Goodman, his subtle terror exponentially increased by his sheer size. Howard’s fixation with Michelle is unsettling, more so because his motives don’t seem to be sexual, despite the glaring undertones. The longer the film goes on, and as each plot point chips away at our trust for Howard, the more we too want out of the bunker, to be free of his clutches, no matter what lies in wait outside.
So, what does lie in wait outside? Telling would be spoiling. One of the things the film is most successful at is making its viewer question what they think they know. The events in Cloverfield, at first a necessarily fearsome backdrop, instead become something more nuanced, not simply an oppression, but rather a liberation. In the confines of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s bunker, the horror of an external cataclysm seems preferable to the insidious possibility that there is no horror at all.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a darkly enthralling thriller with a sublime main cast of three. The setting is oppressively claustrophobic, made more so by set design that toes the line between cosy and dank. The characters are fully wrought, with interesting, multi-dimensional personalities, and the antagonist, Howard, is layered with a pitiable frailty to accompany his veneer of toughness, coupled with an obtrusive ever-presence that leaves the viewer with no doubt as to the threat he poses. And, in a world of carbon-copy sequels, this films stands out as a breath of fresh air, an anti-sequel that makes up for the failings of its predecessor with an unexpected, ingenious vitality.