The trim psychodrama 10 Cloverfield Lane efficiently poses the following question: Is the sweaty prepper who has imprisoned a Louisiana woman in an elaborate underground bunker on the grounds that there has been a nuclear or chemical attack from either Russians or extraterrestrials:
a) A psychopath
b) A savior
It’s not an easy call for Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was in the process of fleeing her abusive boyfriend when she was blindsided by another vehicle, waking to find herself hooked to an IV (good) and chained to a wall (bad). She can take the word of Harold (John Goodman) — a massive, militaristic survivalist with the world’s worst bedside manner — that the air up there is poisoned and humanity wiped out. Or she can incapacitate him, grab his keys, and either save herself or stumble into a death trap.
There are clarifying/complicating factors. Early on, a radio newscaster mentions a mysterious blackout on the Eastern Seaboard: a red herring? The third inhabitant of the bunker, a bearded young handyman named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), seems to agree with Howard that there’s a reason to remain underground — but he’s a vague character, either not too swift or not too truthful. Finally, Howard spends much time reminiscing about an absent, maybe dead daughter: Is Michelle meant as her replacement? And what’s with that title? The film carries the imprimatur of the J.J. Abrams-Bad Robot factory that gave us the clever, subjective-camera giant-monster flick, Cloverfield. Was that monster — which destroyed much of Manhattan — the source of the aforementioned blackout? Could it have friends in Louisiana?
It’s a shame that director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle (of Whiplash) have so little room to maneuver. Too much information kills the mystery, but too little makes you feel as if the filmmakers are spinning their wheels to fill out the (brief) running time. And neither Emmett nor Howard is an especially fascinating character. Gallagher gives you no odd behaviors to parse, while Goodman makes Howard unrelievedly nuts — he’s stuck in one key. Winstead is pretty and clear-eyed and doesn’t hit a false note, but as she proved in the druggie drama Smashed, she has outgrown dullish horror-movie ingénues. She’s looks as trapped as her character.
For all that, 10 Cloverfield Lane does what it needs to do: make you sit and squirm and want very badly to know. It has the appeal of suspense radio plays from the ‘30s and ‘40s and even a touch of Orson Welles’s most infamous Mercury Theater broadcast. And if Howard doesn’t have enough dramatic stature, the questions the character raises give you chills. Is he a delusional psychopath or a grandiose paranoiac; Ted Bundy or Ammon Bundy? Could he be a liberal’s nightmare — a guy who thinks Trump tells it like it is — and right?