The world of JJ Abrams is rife with Easter Eggs and red herrings. He has such a penchant for them that one can be forgiven for finding them even when they may or may not be intentional. Take, for example, a conversation in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, a film he produced, but did not write or direct. A character named Emmett is talking about what he regrets not having done before the putative end of the world as we know it, specifically a tattoo he wanted to have of his name written across his forehead. A throwaway bit of business from an underachiever with eccentric dreams? Perhaps, but for those who know the story of the Golem, there might be more to it than that. Even if it’s not, part of the pleasure of an Abrams oeuvre is such a possibility. The other part of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the unrelenting sense of danger that permeates even the most seemingly collegial moments.
This is a film that demands second-guessing. Part of the cinematic universe of CLOVERFIELD (or is that just another red herring?), events on the super-textual level are never quite what they seem to be as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring clothes designer on the run from an engagement gone sour, finds herself ensconced in a bunker after a car accident. From the moment she wakes, the contradictions of her situation are evident. The bunker is cinderblock. Her mattress is rudimentary. Yet on the bare bulb that lights her space, there is a homey lampshade. Her cuts and scrapes are carefully tended. There is an IV drip in her arm, and a brace on her injured knee. There’s also a chain on that brace that shackles her to the wall. When Howard (John Goodman) makes his bulky and looming appearance with a tray of eggs and oatmeal, he’s both menacing, yet oddly courtly in his solicitude. He frets about her dehydrating after her shock, but is emotionally flat when describing the attack that has killed everyone outside the bunker he’s built. Michelle, being a smart if impulsive young woman, is naturally dubious, even when Emmett (John Gallegher, Jr.) explains the injury to his arm as resulting from his attempt to break >in< to the bunker after seeing the red flashes in the distance that signaled the apocalypse. As for what exactly happened outside, Howard’s theories include both Russians and Martians, though we never hear the one about the Space Worms that Emmett assures Michelle is the most entertaining. All that Michelle is told for sure is that the air outside will kill her, a case Howard makes with evidence that could mean anything.
This is the role for which John Goodman has been waiting his whole life, and he is dazzlingly enigmatic. Obsessed with manners, insistent on coasters being used on his heirloom dining table, patient when least expected, raging for no reason that makes sense, he is a teddy bear and grizzly at the same time. When it’s his turn to talk about regrets, there is something distinctly creepy about the way he proclaims that he has done everything he ever wanted to. There is a piece missing from his emotional make-up, echoed in a jigsaw puzzle used to wile away the time, that prevents him from making a connection to his fellow humans, even the one there willingly, and the simulacrum he evokes of a normal affect is just imperfect enough to make us both wary for its alien quality, and just a little sympathetic for the insurmountable loneliness it’s attempting to overcome. The smile is robotic, the growl is terrifying. His strict no-touching rule anti-intuitively disconcerting.
The story unfolds in an intensely intimate fashion, from Michelle’s point of view, and her sense of safety shifting seismically almost from moment to moment. Things half seen, chances taken and missed, make for an atmosphere of harrowing suspense as what is in the bunker may be worse than what waits outside, and what’s outside can be interpreted in too many ways to process. Winstead, with her large, preternaturally expressive eyes, makes spoken dialoge superfluous, conveying an impressive range of feeling from tenderness to killer directly from her limbic system to ours. With an forceful but understated reaction, the necessity for silence being her ticket to another day of life, she can make the discovery of a word scratched into a piece of glass more jarring than the car crash that landed her underground with Howard and Emmett. Kudos, too, for one of the most superb uses of a sudden silence and cut to black this year, and to Michelle for being the strongest female character to hit the screen since MAD MAX’s Furiosa, and twice as resourceful. She’s on alert, and ready to act, even when sitting down to a family-style dinner Howard has prepared, or getting involved in an old-fashioned board game.
Reinvigorating the horror genre with a slick deconstruction that parses the subtleties of the patriarchy and the perils of the nuclear family, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a fiendishly clever film dedicated to keeping us on edge about the world we all live in, even as it keeps us guessing about what is happening outside that bunker door.