Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

Black Box

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane (Paramount Pictures)

You’ve seen this movie before. An attractive young woman, one of those ingénue actresses you kind of recognize but can’t quite place, decides to run out on her fiancé. Maybe he’s abusive, we’re not sure, but we watch her clearing her things out of their apartment in a rush, leaving her engagement ring on the counter, grabbing a bottle of Scotch (remember that bottle) on the way out the door, and then driving, driving, out of a city and into the deep country: woods, fields, nobody to call, nobody to help — the dark territory of Norman Bates and Leatherface and the other monsters of our national gothic.

She stops at a gas station, a truck looms up beside her, she shrinks from its headlights. She drives on, her phone buzzes, her boyfriend begs and pleads — and then wham, something hits her, her car spins off the road, and she blacks out.

When she wakes up she’s in a bare, windowless, concrete room, stripped to her white undershirt, hooked up to an IV, and chained to the wall. Her cell phone is there, but there’s no signal. All she can do is wait, helpless and alone, for her captor to appear.

Except that when he does appear, the movie that you expect 10 Cloverfield Lane to be from its opening sequence — a conventional horror movie, pitting a fetching young woman against some kind of rural malevolence — collapses into something considerably more interesting. The captor, it turns out, doesn’t think he’s a captor at all: He’s our heroine’s rescuer, he tells her (along with his name: it’s Howard), because they’re in his survivalist bunker and the entire world outside has been nuked or carpet-bombed or poisoned or otherwise rendered unfit for human habitation.

Is he telling the truth? The facts that he’s clearly paranoid, that he controls all the means of communication into and out of the bunker, and that he’s played by a scowling, bearded John Goodman all suggest that the answer might be a strong H-E-double-hockey-sticks no. Which is why our heroine (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a name you’ll probably recognize next time) spends her first few hours underground plotting her escape, assuming that she’s been taken by a madman for whom the apocalypse is just a cover story.

But wait: She’s not actually alone with him, there’s another bunker-dweller, the drawling, friendly Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local boy who helped Howard build the thing, who concedes that their host is a little crazy, but who also saw something crazy happening — lights in the sky, etc. — which is why he ran for shelter and begged Howard to take him in. Is Emmett on the level? If not, the men are running a pretty complicated plot. And what about those reports on the radio as she was driving, about blackouts along the Gulf Coast? And when she finally makes it to the bunker door, what she sees outside . . .

Best to stop there, because of course the suspense about What’s Out There is crucial to the movie, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is good enough that its mysteries deserve respect. The title suggests some connection to 2008’s Cloverfield, the found-footage Godzilla movie about a collection of whiny Millennials scampering through the destruction of New York, and there is a connection: They share a producer, J. J. Abrams, and this movie was conceived (or reconceived, actually, since it derived from a preexisting script) as a spiritual successor to that hit, not a sequel but a kind of anthology-series sibling, with the same kind of teasing marketing campaign, the same promise of a big reveal.

Without spoiling that reveal, I’ll just say that (as so often with Abrams’s sci-fi twists and narrative black boxes) the ending isn’t the best part of the movie, and if you’re expecting something mind-blowing that basically rewrites everything you’ve seen — well, don’t.

The twist is fun enough, it’s worth waiting for, but the wait itself is actually what makes 10 Cloverfield such a strange and interesting trip. Whatever lurks beyond the bunker door, the movie’s strength lies in the slow unpeeling of the layers of crazy underground, the development of Goodman’s character from an apparent psycho to a semi-sympathetic prepper to, well, just watch the movie and you’ll find out.

The cast is very good: Winstead’s cool watchfulness once her character’s panic subsides, Gallagher’s weirdly off-kilter charm, and the lumbering, ugly charisma that Goodman always brings to bear. Imagine being trapped underground with Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, with only his word to go on about the fate of all of human civilization. That’s 10 Cloverfield in a sentence, and if it doesn’t tempt you to see it, nothing will.

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