A young woman is held in an underground bunker by an abusive man as the apocalypse may be happening outside.
Dan Trachtenberg, 2016
After her car is run off the road, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up hurt and restrained in an underground bunker. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her that the air outside has been poisoned and he saved her just in time. Given Howard’s threatening demeanour, the fact that Michelle is chained to the wall, and the fact that his statements seem crazy, Michelle doesn’t believe Howard. As her leg begins to heal, Howard gives her crutches and free reign of the bunker. She meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), a genial young man who insists that he chose to be in the bunker because Howard is right. The three of them begin to settle into a routine, but Howard’s unpredictable mood swings make it harder and harder to live with him – even if the outside world is as unlivable as he says.
This “spiritual successor” to Cloverfield is nothing like the original. Director Dan Trachtenberg uses the confines of his set to his advantage. We explore every corner of the bunker, Trachtenberg subtly dropping information that will prove important later as we see all of Michelle’s resources. For the bulk of the movie, we never escape the atmosphere of heavy, oppressive claustrophobia. Occasionally Michelle and Emmett connect and the place feels lighter for a moment, with Howard in one of his more generous moods. Then Howard will turn on a dime and the space seems to shrink. Howard is a classic abuser; by turns kind and violent, he curses Michelle and Emmett when they “make” him hurt them, but he also provides them with potentially their only shelter from the situation outside. There are two mysteries keeping the movie moving: what exactly is happening outside the bunker, and whether Howard really is the innocent man who built the bunker thanks to previous knowledge of apocalyptic times ahead. Michelle’s plucky determination is placed in stark contrast with Emmett’s relaxed friendliness; Emmett seems to be happy to stay in the bunker forever, with no ambitions of a future beyond that. Michelle, on the other hand, seems to see it as a temporary situation, even when things look really bleak. It’s more of a thriller than a horror movie, with shifting tensions and driving mysteries, though there is some psychological horror at work.
The film rests on three excellent performances. The generally amenable John Goodman has never been as scary as he is here; he turns his warmth into a weapon, insisting that he’s been nothing but generous when he’s oppressing his captives. John Gallagher Jr’s awkward, steadfast sweetness provides hope, and a much-needed counterpoint to Howard in Michelle’s suddenly shrunken world. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a strong lead, making Michelle relatable and emotionally available so that we feel her fear. There’s a decidedly twisty ending that might lose some viewers. Personally, I enjoyed the twist, which wraps up the question of Howard’s sanity in a way that’s hard to see coming. As atmospheric and tense as the film is, though, the big scares never quite deliver. There are two genuinely shocking moments in the movie, but the rest of the film’s pacing can feel like too slow a burn, especially when the mood shifts significantly. Still, it’s a very solid little movie, one that’s tense and different and fun.
10 Cloverfield Lane on IMDb