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Bunker mentality '10 Cloverfield Lane'

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Small cast thriller packed with frightening intensity

The current era in Hollywood is one of franchises and sequels. Much of the wide-release fare that we see is either a beginning or a continuation of some long-extant property. Multi-movie world-building has become accepted practice and good business.

'10 Cloverfield Lane' is both of and outside of that realm. Deemed a sort of spiritual sequel to 2008's found-footage monster movie 'Cloverfield' by producer J.J. Abrams, the film isn't a direct continuation of that previous film's narrative. It exists in that same type of universe, but it tells a much different story a story all its own.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, TV's 'The Returned') has just broken things off with her fianc and is leaving town. That night, she is involved in an accident that spins her car off the road and leaves her injured and unconscious.

When she wakes up, she's in a small, sparsely appointed cinderblock room. Her knee is injured and she's chained to the wall. She believes she's a prisoner, but soon learns that her captor an unsettlingly intense man named Howard (John Goodman, 'Trumbo') considers himself her rescuer.

Howard informs Michelle that there has been some sort of attack; the details are sketchy, but according to Howard, the air has been contaminated, so the only safe place for them is in this doomsday bunker that he built beneath his farmhouse. She has doubts, both about the story and about Howard himself, but the bunker's other resident a local handyman named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr., TV's 'The Newsroom') who helped Howard build the place corroborates at least some of what Howard has said.

The three settle into an uneasy routine, with Michelle and Emmett striving to achieve some semblance of normalcy under the intensely watchful and paranoid eye of Howard. However, there are aspects of the situation that simply don't add up, leading them all to try and discern the reality of their circumstances.

(If that synopsis seems a little vague, that's by design; this film is very much of the 'the less you know, the better off you'll be' ilk.)

'10 Cloverfield Lane' bears little resemblance to its predecessor in fact, the film's genesis came from an initially-unrelated story but it still fits rather nicely as a companion piece to the first film. It also hints at a new method of franchise-building that allows for a good deal more flexibility in the expansion and exploration of cinematic worlds. Global cataclysm is, well global the notion of telling different stories that all spring from the same starting point is one with vast potential.

Sequel or not, there's no doubt that '10 Cloverfield Lane' works beautifully as a stand-alone film. First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg does great work in mining the claustrophobic confines for aesthetic tension; it's cramped and creepy and confusing. The odd geography of the bunker makes for a perfect backdrop against which to set the dynamics of these mysterious and frightening relationships.

This film is essentially a three-hander, so it stands to reason that you'd better cast a trio of extremely talented performers. There's no one else to do the heavy lifting, so your stars need to be up to the task. Winstead is great as a woman who refuses to be ruled by her confusion and fear and instead devotes herself to solving the problems placed before her; she's a heroine who never once feels like a damsel in distress, which is a sadly infrequent occurrence. Gallagher captures the essence of the good old boy without stooping to stereotype; he's a likeable goofball who nevertheless proves to have a steadfast center.

As for John Goodman, well what can I say? He's simply exceptional, but that's not really a surprise, as he's one of the best character actors of his generation. One of the most underrated, too. His take on Howard gives us a man who has reached a logical conclusion from an illogical start. He honestly believes that he has done the right thing throughout, but his inherent instability leaves him constantly on the tipping point. It is a powerfully sinister performance.

'10 Cloverfield Lane' is vastly different from 'Cloverfield,' but that works in its favor. One hopes that the film is successful enough that Abrams and company can continue exploring this world and offer yet another perspective, both narratively and stylistically. Regardless, the result here is a taut, compelling thriller that offers up some excellent performances and a bit of speculative weirdness.

[5 out of 5]

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