When I was 13, I accompanied two friends to see Cloverfield. They were on a date. I was there because one of their mothers requested a third party tag along to prevent physical romance. Normally, I wouldn't have agreed to such a demeaning venture, but at the time my parents wouldn't have allowed me to see Cloverfield otherwise and the excuse was too good to let pass.
The inventive little found-footage film stood out to young me. It was raw, tantalizing in its reveals, and to this day remains the best found-footage film I've ever seen. It was also littered with tiny hints to a deeper narrative, which kept me obsessed with the movie's universe (I think it has been coined the "Cloververse") for a while. I eagerly started awaiting a sequel.
Little did I know that I'd get something like this eight years later. 10 Cloverfield Lane isn't a sequel to Cloverfield: it's been called a spiritual successor and even a cousin; it certainly doesn't even land in the same genre. Cloverfield was a bombastic monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a dialogue driven thriller. It does exist in the Cloververse, as producer and franchise head J. J. Abrams insists, but it's a far different and far better film than the original.
7th grade Ryan would be ecstatic to find out that 10 Cloverfield Lane is a stunningly taut thriller with captivating performances and hints to the larger narrative; a finely tuned directorial debut.
Director Dan Trachtenberg deserves much of the praise coming to this movie. After releasing Portal: No Escape (a short film based on the intellectually stimulating video game Portal, which shares some narrative threads with 10 Cloverfield Lane) on his YouTube channel, Trachtenberg was discovered by J. J. Abrams and asked to direct the project.
So, 10 Cloverfield Lane is Trachtenberg's first full length film- and the direction is impressive. It's sharp and subtle; Trachtenberg's pacing never misses a beat.
Trachtenberg's prowess in storytelling through direction is evident from the film's opening stages. Rather than just tell everyone what's going on (as, say, Christopher Nolan films tend to excessively do), he provides quick cuts of a distressed woman packing up her possessions. Between what she takes, what she leaves behind, and how she chooses, Trachtenberg provides us the following in one fell swoop: exposition, narrative background, character development, and a taste of the movie's style. This is done within minutes. This is tight filmmaking.
10 Cloverfield Lane is packed with such proficient direction. Trachtenberg is adept at helming a thriller: shots silently transition from wide to medium to close-up as tension rises; dinner table discussions erupt into explosive threats naturally and without obvious signposting. The movie's perfect pacing packages every harrowing event into a cohesive whole, meaning no second feels wasted.
Much of the movie's claustrophobic happenings are driven by conversation, so thankfully the screenplay is handled deftly. The final draft was written by Damien Chazelle, writer/director of Whiplash. He knows how to stage a conversation in scary ways, and his style works to considerable effect.
None of the tension and fear that 10 Cloverfield Lane exudes would be possible, though, without the great performances- namely John Goodman's. He plays Howard, the man who owns the sealed bunker that Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Michelle suddenly wakes up in. Dear god, Goodman is menacing.
The movie doesn't want you to know how to feel about Howard- until it does. And when it does, Goodman either earns your conflicted sympathy or absolutely terrifies your soul out of your body. This is one of the most dynamic performances I've ever seen from him. If it belonged to a more well known movie, it would deserve an Oscar nomination without a doubt. Mary Elizabeth Winstead displays a consistently compelling agency and John Gallagher Jr. brings his much needed indie levity.
Perhaps 10 Cloverfield Lane's only weak link is its most blatant connection to the Cloververse. The franchise blood necessitates a larger scale final act that feels slightly jarring coming from a small scale drama. It's handled well enough, but the genre shift is inherently dizzying at first. As a whole, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a fantastic directorial debut and a worthy addition to the franchise.