Mary Elizabeth Winstead Outfoxes the End Times in 10 Cloverfield Lane

In one key way, the kinda-maybe sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane might be the purest example yet of the J.J. Abrams house style. Directed by first-timer Dan Trachtenberg but produced by Abrams (Super 8, Lost, Alias, Cloverfield, etc.) the thriller is yet another of the fannish wunderbrand’s mystery boxes, a genre tease whose marketing makes a secret not just of its twists but of its very premise. The innovation this time? Now the characters are actually inside the mystery box itself, either by proud choice (John Goodman’s whiskery survivalist), desperate fear (John Gallagher Jr.’s even more whiskery builder bro) or terrifying, mysterious happenstance (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

That’s no spoiler. Some three minutes in, after opening titles that give jarring new meaning to the term “smash cut,” Winstead’s Michelle awakens in a cinderblock cell, cuffed to a cot and bleeding from a head wound. But we immediately glean how resourceful she is, as she’s wearing the official uniform of intrepid young women in genre movies everywhere: a tight white tank top.

We also can tell because Winstead is adept at puzzling things out as we watch, letting us see her eyes take in each clue around her, and suggesting, with quick glances or a hitch of her swooping eyebrows, that she’s resolved to take resourceful action. Seeing what she does next — with a lighter she’s lucked upon or a crutch she’s whittled into a shiv — is one of the film’s true thrills.

Even when Michelle is playing nice for her captor, Winstead’s eyes are alert, even calculating, and director Trachtenberg usually lets us know everything that she does. That makes 10 Cloverfield Lane engaging in a way Hollywood event films usually aren’t: It invites us to work out what her next move should be. It’s like one of those locked-room, team-building games where you have to figure out how to escape with the couple of items you’ve been given, except with John Goodman insisting that, no, actually, you don’t want to get out — this is a survival bunker, and there’s been an attack of some sort, terrorist or alien or Cloverfield, and the air outside will kill you. Michelle’s glimpses of the farmland surrounding the shelter aren’t encouraging, and Goodman’s Howard, a stern and prideful rule-maker, keeps insisting that she should be grateful he bothered to save her. (Also that she should use coasters and re-sleeve any DVDs she watches.)

All that setup gets paid off, generously, in spectacular fashion. This is no tease like that time when the Lost gang found an underground bunker but then didn’t actually open it until the next season. I’ll say nothing of the film’s revelations but for this: The brash madness of it all is, as the multiplexes demand, “fun,” but it’s kids’ stuff compared with the tough, tense scenes of Michelle plotting, behind her mask of a face, as her captor/savior prattles on about his own preparedness for the tragedy he insists has wiped out the rest of humanity. Such scenes play out around a cozy dinner table or in an underground living room tricked out with a “Home Sweet Home” cross-stitch. That perverse domesticity must be the inspiration behind the boldly ludicrous title: What’s next, I Married Cloverfield? (The film was originally titled Valencia and had nothing to do with Cloverfield until deep into production.)

As a gamelike, simulationist PG-13 horror chamber piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a success: well shot and well staged, arrestingly acted, edited with a crisp unpredictability. It’s less compelling in terms of character and meaning. There’s bite in Goodman’s portrayal of an American classic, the troubled dude so well prepped for Doomsday that he’s clearly rooting for Doomsday to come. But the character suffers from mystery-box plotting: To ensure we’re always guessing, he can’t just come out and tell Michelle, in the early scenes, what exactly is supposed to be going on. He’s so slow to spill the basics of the scenario you might think that the marketing team has them under embargo even inside the movie itself.

Of course, that gives Michelle more time to improvise weapons and escape plans, the specifics of which prove more compelling than the bigger secrets. Since her immediate situation is so nerve-racking, it might make sense that Michelle never finds time to mourn her friends, her family, her aspirations. (She had wanted to be a fashion designer, a skill that, amusingly, actually comes in handy.) Even without moping, the film still goes slack in a short middle section in which the survivors become something of a team, watching movies, spinning Tommy James on a jukebox or playing the game of Life. The screenwriters — Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle — never master the shifting power dynamics you might expect in a three-character stage drama. Winstead and Gallagher each get a monologue about their lives before whatever has happened, but all context for the speeches has been trimmed out, leaving the actors to perform them for us without any warmup — they come across like audition pieces rather than revelations of character.

The good news is that there’s more bad news before you know it, and Winstead, an actress with chops and potent star power, is right back to raw-eyed scheming — and inviting us along with each turn of her mind. Her Michelle is a welcome revision of final-girl horror plotting: She’s usually a step ahead of us, and she’s always striving to get out there even further. Maybe she’ll be back in Cloverfield Goes Bananas.

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