10 Cloverfield Lane is the feature directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, and it credits John Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Whiplash filmmaker Damien Chazelle as crafters of the story and screenplay. And yet the name that looms over it is that of producer J.J. Abrams. This could be understandably explained by the studio’s enthusiasm to the film to the contributing creator who presided over the all-time top grossing film at the domestic box office, even if he achieved that particular inside-the-park home run after starting on third base. Instead, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like it belongs to Abrams because it adheres to his impresario instincts, particular an eager coyness in its promotion. Despite the fact that its very title indicates it has some connection to an earlier hit movie, also produced by Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane was produced with nary a whisper, most only aware of its existence when a trailer surprisingly arrived at the beginning of the year. Abrams is undoubtedly committed to the crafts of storytelling and moviemaking, but he sometimes seems more actively engaging by impish act of drawing a secretive veil around his creations.
All that mystery cements that notion that 10 Cloverfield Lane is best seen with as little foreknowledge about the plot as possible. That’s true, in part because the relative thinness of the characters is a little less problematic when there is the tension of added uncertainty built in to the viewing experience. However, that strategic approach also overemphasizes the amount of curlicue shock that’s built into the film. 10 Cloverfield Lane calls to mind nineteen-sixties television series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits less in the execution of a devastating storytelling twist that puts a striking moral thesis to everything that’s come before and more in the expert exploitation of modern paranoia to keep the proceedings overwhelmingly shaped by discomfort with the unknown. Lean and cunning, the film is at its best at its least sensational, drawing upon the teetering levels of trust among the characters to drive the momentum.
It is also in the more compact, intimate moments that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is strongest. As the film’s lead and the audience’s surrogate, Winstead has the most complicated route to run. She does it with aplomb, insuring through measured conviction that the trickier pivots make sense. When the film inevitably pushes into more raucous territory, she fares a little less well, although short of somehow plausibly channeling Imperator Furiosa, there’s only so much the actress can do when the script pushes her to one or two instances of split second resourcefulness too far. For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is solidly engaging. It only really slips when it inadvertently proves that the in the cliched urging “Go big or go home,” sometimes the latter option is actually the better one.