Michelle wakes up on a mattress on a concrete floor, chipped pink paint on the walls, an IV in her arm, and her leg chained to a metal bar. Injured and terrified, she tries to free herself, but to no avail. Suddenly, Howard walks into the room. Michelle begs him to let her go, but Howard insists she should be grateful for her current predicament; after all, what’s going on outside is far worse.

This is how we are introduced to “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a thriller directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Michelle and her self-styled savior, Howard Stambler, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman, respectively, engage in a game of deception and secrecy with deadly consequences. Stambler, a former member of the Navy, has built an underground bunker in anticipation of any doomsday scenario he has deemed plausible. They’re joined by another man, Emmet, who has come to the bunker of his own volition—having helped Howard build the bunker, he became convinced of his prescience. When Howard and Emmet see an enormous light in the sky, they descended to the bunker with Michelle in tow after Howard accidentally ran her off the road. Or was it an accident?

Nobody quite knows what’s true in the bunker. Howard and Emmet seem very convinced of the destruction of the outside world, but it’s unclear for most of the movie whether or not they’re right. Meanwhile, Michelle, running away from a man she didn’t love and memories of an abusive father, finds herself in the hands of a man who infantilizes her and seems to harbor a healthy dislike for any woman he can’t control. He laments his wife leaving him with their daughter, whom he enshrines all over the bunker. Howard remains protective of Michelle throughout, even as she remains openly skeptical of him. Meanwhile, Emmet is given precious little rope from Howard, and when he tugs, the consequences are dire. When Michelle finds an ominous message scratched into a window, Howard’s intentions are thrown even further into doubt.

Howard seems to want to make another daughter out of Michelle, but rather than passively accept his false protection, Michelle begins to live her life in the way she wanted to: without regrets. Her final decision of the film signals a new beginning.

Winstead does an excellent job taking Michelle on a real arc throughout the entire ordeal, something typically missing from the female-infantilizing world of horror movies. She’s able to convey a backstory without having to spell out her entire life, and her short-lived friendship with Emmet, a shaggily affable John Gallagher, Jr., gives the audience something to hold onto through the gloom.

Goodman gives a horrifically visceral performance as Howard, villainously terrifying without descending into cliché. His scenes leave the audience with bated breath. Trachtenberg spends a lot of time on his face, making the story even more claustrophobic than it already is.
Maybe the biggest asset to this film is the trailer. Rather than give away the store with a detailed plot breakdown, it’s a simple clip that shows almost nothing after the first 30 minutes of the movie, the only sounds a chillingly upbeat Tommy James and the Shondells tune and Howard’s pleading to keep the bunker closed. More studios should follow that model, because when the chips come down in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” no one in the theater can say, “I told you so.”

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