Three's Company: "10 Cloverfield Lane" a tautly wound, showstopping master of suspense

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
105 min., rated PG-13.

J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production company certainly have a way with top-secret marketing strategies, even in our spoiler culture when it comes to film and TV. As it went with 2008’s panicky, cleverly mounted found-footage monster movie “Cloverfield,” the existence of “10 Cloverfield Lane” came as an out-of-nowhere surprise with maximum intrigue. Even being billed eight years later as a “spiritual successor,” it still manages to surprise over and over as a sneakily crackerjack suspense thriller. It is cause for celebration when not just any film but a spectacularly assured feature debut such as this one from director Dan Trachtenberg works like gangbusters on nearly every cinematic level. How and whether or not “10 Cloverfield Lane” actually co-exists within the same universe as “Cloverfield” matters very little. This proudly stands apart as its own entity and it’s a riveting showstopper.

Fleeing a relationship gone south, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) drives off into the night in Louisiana, only to be violenty knocked off the road by a passing truck. Coming to, she finds herself in a cement-walled room, her leg in a brace and chained to a wall. Michelle discovers she was pulled from the accident and into the doomsday bunker of a burly, intimidating man named Howard (John Goodman), who happens to be armed and very prepared. She isn’t so sure, thinking she has been kidnapped, but he assures her that everyone above ground is dead due to some sort of attack and a contamination of the air. Along with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a scruffy, seemingly harmless young guy who actually helped Howard build the bunker, Michelle doesn’t know who to trust and what to believe. Even if the world is ending, is it safer outside than inside the bunker with the unpredictable Howard? Will she ever find out? Will Michelle just take the proverbial jump out of the frying pan into the fire?

A tautly wound exercise in crafting unbearable suspense and deploying white-knuckle thrills, “10 Cloverfield Lane” grips, stresses and shakes. Before that, director Dan Trachtenberg shrewdly constructs a masterclass in economic visual storytelling, allowing one to already get a sense of who Michelle is without the easy crutch of spelling it out in words. Her sudden car accident then becomes the narrative impetus, made all the more intensely impactful as it’s jarringly cut between the silent title cards of the opening credits. Originating as an “ultra low-budget” spec script, the film is lean and highly concentrated as a three-hander chamber piece, and the beauty of the script by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (2014’s “Whiplash”) is its consistent sense of mystery and ability to tease without cheating. With a single location and a small cast of three, there isn’t an ounce of fat nor a wasted frame to be had, only intimate, revealing character moments and nervous, almost tension-relieving humor to offset the viewer’s anxiety.

The focal point of the piece, Michelle is readily a protagonist worth following and rooting for from the start. Excellent in the role, Mary Elizabeth Winstead carries herself with resourcefulness, guts, smarts and raw, honest emotion. Her actions in such a disconcerting predicament are wholly believable and judicious; if someone told you they had your best interest, would you take that person’s word for it or try every chance you had to escape and see for yourself? The viewer is in Michelle's corner every step of the way, making her face-off with Howard that much more exhilarating. Those who watch a lot of movies will know of Winstead, but aside from already putting in standout work and being the lead in at least five movies, this is a star-making performance. Using his weight to imposing effect, John Goodman is superbly unsettling as Howard. He keeps us and the characters off-balance, alternating between father-like sincerity and volatility. Instead of being so obviously bad from the start, Goodman plays things close to the vest, while finding subtle nuances and even humor in Howard that makes him an unforgettable survivalist who may or may not be insane. Thirdly, John Gallagher Jr. (2013's "Short Term 12") is no third wheel. As Emmett, he fleshes him out as a likable, multidimensional guy with a sweetness and a sense of humor.

Sharply made and as airtight as that bunker, “10 Cloverfield Lane” plays out like a stage play, albeit one whose set-pieces involving Michelle’s attempted escapes are expertly staged, breathlessly thrilling and gasp-inducing. There is palpable claustrophobia in the cramped bunker (even as it’s been made into a first-floor home with a common room and kitchen), not to mention a sequence or two in an air vent. There’s also the inspired use of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” playing on Howard’s jukebox during a montage of the three spending their time playing board games like a family, as well as the blackly funny timing of The Exciters’ “Tell Him.” In concert, the film’s elements are all top-notch, from the sound design and composer Bear McCreary’s relentlessly tense music score, to Jeff Cutter’s cinematography that relies more on time-tested fluidity and not the first-person shaky-cam of its “blood relative.” As it goes with many mystery boxes, the sense of not knowing is sometimes more satisfying than the time when we finally find out what’s in the box—and that’s the one minor misgiving in an otherwise masterful thriller. Neither made nor broken by its conclusion, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is executed with such unquestionable know-how in working its audience to a fever pitch that the end game still doesn't spoil a thing. The less you know going in, the better, but once you come out, don't spill the beans.

Grade: A -