The Empty Balcony: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane, from director Dan Trachtenberg, was billed as the spiritual successor to Cloverfield, from 2008. The filmmakers, including producer JJ Abrams, have been coy about exactly how this newest film relates to Cloverfield, and this ties in well with the general air of mystery that has surrounded the films’ promotional campaigns. But in actuality, how the two films are related is an impossible question to answer, so the people involved have to be cagey. 10 Cloverfield Lane was developed independently of Cloverfield, and other than the title, has no relation. Linking the two films together was a bit of smoke and mirrors on Bad Robot’s part to give the new film a leg up at the box office. It’s disingenuous, sure, but luckily it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of genuine sequels out there that are terrible films. If a good one wants to latch on to a successful film like a remora, that’s fine with me.

In 10 Cloverfield Lane a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), packs her bags and flees her apartment, leaving behind her engagement ring. After traveling into the night, she has a nasty car accident, only to awaken later, chained to a pipe in a very scary looking basement. We’ve all heard or read stories about women being abducted and held against their wills as sex slaves. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit must have at least three episodes a season about this. It’s a horrible situation for a person to be in, and Michelle’s distress at her captivity is palpable. Only, things aren’t what they seem.

Instead of a filthy basement, Michelle is, in actuality, in a fallout shelter built and maintained by Howard Stambler (John Goodman). He claims that he rescued Michelle from the car accident and took her to his shelter because, coincidentally, a major attack began on the country at the same time. Howard is not the most stable of fellows. He believes in all the more outlandish conspiracy theories, and has a very strong streak of paranoia. He flits back and forth between rationality and a domineering persona that serves to keep Michelle and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), another person in the shelter, on edge. Howard does such a good job at being intimidating that Michelle and Emmett can barely bring themselves to make eye contact with him.

Michelle has not seen any evidence that there was an attack or other such disaster, and is not about to take Howard’s word for it, even though Emmett is sure that something happened up on the surface. Howard grows more and more impossible to live with, so that eventually a choice will have to be made. Will Michelle continue to submit to this man and hope that he doesn’t become unhinged, or does she find a way out of the bunker and see if the world is indeed coming to an end.

John Goodman is an absolute terror in this film. He’s big and brutish. He’s got a short fuse. Any other turn of phrase one can think of about a dangerous man can be applied here. Goodman couldn’t have done a better job in this role. His crazy is not outlandish or overdone, like so many other films have interpreted madness or paranoia. Rather, it’s profound and disturbing.

As for Winstead and Gallagher, they did well tiptoeing around Goodman’s Howard. By design Goodman dominated the film, even though Winstead is the main character.

Trachtenberg, working from a screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, was helming his first film with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Despite this being his first feature, he showed a fine grasp of tension and storytelling. The limited confines of the shelter stretch believability at some points, but Trachtenberg keeps things properly close. It’s not easy to maintain a pervading sense of menace in a film, while also keeping a great big unknown — what is going on outside the shelter — hovering over the film. What viewers get with 10 Cloverfield Lane is a study in unease and desperation, with only the thread of a promise of resolution at the end. A viewer could be concerned it’s a narrative con job. It’s not.