Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane does an excellent job of putting us right in the head of its protagonist. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has just left her husband, for unspecified reasons, and is nervously driving down the highway when she’s in a horrible car crash. When she awakens, she’s chained to a bed in a small, concrete-walled room, hooked up to a makeshift IV, with an almost Medieval looking brace on her leg. After a bit, there are thunderous footsteps—monster-like—and a large man in a flannel shirt (John Goodman) emerges. His name is Howard and he explains that he rescued her from the crash but didn’t take her to the hospital because there are no more hospitals. There’s been some sort of attack—nuclear, alien, he’s not sure which—humanity has been wiped out and the air is so toxic, if will fry you on contact. Luckily, he had an underground bunker prepared just for such an occasion.
Of course, we are all thinking exactly what Michelle is thinking—that Howard is insane, that she is his prisoner. The film watches Michelle closely—her eyes, her face, her reactions to Howard’s every move. And although there’s no voiceover, no diary—we are right there with her. The film is a master class in the subjective POV.
Michelle isn’t alone in the bunker. There’s another young man—affable, if not too bright, named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and to tell you more about him would be to give way one of the film’s many spoilers. The film metes out its twists slowly but expertly—you know they’re coming, you just don’t know what they will be. (One caveat to that: The film is, annoyingly, marketed as a sequel to 2008’s found-footage alien film Cloverfield. Some might see that as a clue, as IndieWire’s Sam Adams points out here. Or maybe it’s all just a clever diversion tactic.)
Both Winstead and Gallagher Jr. are great as the young bomb shelter roomies, but it’s Goodman’s film. He’s a Stephen King-style character—affable and menacing, with both a cheery bonhomie and a hair-trigger temper. Things get really weird when he, Michelle, and Emmett form a strange little family, eating dinner together and doing puzzles on the coffee table. It’s uncanny—and Goodman’s normcore monster (or hero?) adds to the sense of disorientation. Goodman’s Howard is an Annie Wilkes for our modern times: the apocalypse’s “number one fan.”