10 Cloverfield Lane carefully develops a very subjective story, which has you thinking that maybe the clichés aren’t adding up to the movie you thought it was.
When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a basement at the start of 10 Cloverfield Lane, she's confused. She's lying on a mattress on the floor. Her face is bloodied. She's hooked up to an IV fluids bag. Her knee is in a brace, which is in turn handcuffed to the cinderblock wall. She spends a long moment fretting, crying and wincing, but then she gathers herself, as you imagine you might if you found yourself in such a predicament.
Which is to say, Michelle comes up with a plan. Using the IV pole, she hooks her iPhone, located across the room. Pulling it to her, she realizes all too quickly that the signal's failing, and so she stands as tall as she can on that mattress, stretching toward the ceiling. Then she hears a noise, loud, pounding, crashing. The door to the basement room opens, and in walks John Goodman as Howard, the scariest version of John Goodman, that is; the one you remember from Barton Fink or maybe Inside Llewyn Davis
Here again, Michelle does what you hope you'd do, meaning that she resists panic and concocts an on-the-spot strategy. Her boyfriend will miss her, she says, and so the cops will be on their way. Howard looks down on Elizabeth, on the mattress on the floor. "I'm sorry, but no one is looking for you."
Michelle's face falls. Yours might too, because you know, as she does, that Howard is right. This because you've seen the gorgeous, slamming first four minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a nearly wordless sequence during which you hear an ominous music track by Bear McCreary as Michelle endures a distressing phone call from that boyfriend, packs her suitcase, and drives her car from the city into a farmland-looking nowhere. As she drives, the boyfriend calls, so you see his name and hear his pleading with her to come back. Then her car is smashed, hard, so it turns over and over, sliding down a dark hill into water that becomes a black screen.
So far, so slasher movie. But as Michelle waits in that basement room, you begin thinking that maybe 10 Cloverfield Lane isn't just that. By the time Howard returns, with food on a tray and a story that seems impossible -- until it doesn't -- you're persuaded to follow Michelle's lead on whether to believe him, how to survive, and how to fight back. This because Winstead's remarkable, eloquent face is framed again and again in Dan Trachtenberg's locked-room narrative to reveal Michelle's many contemplations. This also because what you see is what she sees, a tight frame of experience that's sometimes hard to decipher.
While the movie is titled to recall Cloverfield (both are produced by J.J. Abrams), it's not a sequel or even thematically similar. The production team has been calling it a "sister movie", and for the most part, it refrains from the wild handheld camera effects that made Matt Reeves' film infamous among viewers inclined to motion sickness. Rather, 10 Cloverfield Lane carefully develops Michelle's very subjective story, her efforts to understand and to regain a semblance of self-identity. As her new existence makes her rethink her former life (shared in a couple of take-a-breath conversations with Emmett), you're simultaneously thinking that maybe these clichés aren’t adding up to the story you guessed it might be.
Like Michelle, you're evaluating what Howard has to say, with little evidence one way or the other. He insists that the world outside, the one where no one is looking for her, has been subjected to a terrible attack, "a big one", leaving the air contaminated and the population decimated. She objects, of course, knowing something about the same stories you know, where girls are abducted and chained to walls and horribly abused. As you and she ponder this possibility, you hear more banging noises, by way of introducing Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a builder, he says, who helped Howard construct the bunker under Howard's farmhouse.
When Michelle asks how Emmett broke his arm, he and Howard offer a couple of different explanations. Emmett believes Howard's version of the attack because, well, Howard spent 14 years in the Navy (doing "satellite stuff") and besides, he's "like a black belt in conspiracy theories".
Howard, for his part, is still putting together whether the offensive has been engineered by Russia or South Korea or, maybe, aliens. Beyond sorting out which stories that might or might not be true, Michelle spends long minutes contemplating the walls of that bunker. Outside her room, the décor is slightly more elaborate, with plastic wood walls and shelves and cupboards, canned tomato sauce, Goldfish crackers and toaster pastries, Monopoly and Pretty in Pink, plus a jukebox full of vintage tunes like "I Think We're Alone Now".
Such details help to make Michelle's new world seem familiar and strange at the same time. Who's alone now? And with whom? Can you trust what you see? Or might you be making up your own story because, after all, you're sure you've seen one like this before?
When at last Michelle does get a look at what might have happened, the scene is still hard to read (and for this you're grateful, as too many movies, Abrams' otherwise terrific Super 8 included, build to a reveal that can only be anti-climactic). As you work on these and other questions, you're glad to be watching Michelle working, too. She's a wonderful sort of Last Girl, even as she's not.