- UNHINGED: John Goodman (right) heads an excellent bare-bones cast.
So you've just left your fiance in a huff and a sedan, stopping long enough on the way out of the apartment to grab a bottle of scotch and a box of not much. You hit the open road somewhere in the wilds of Louisiana and, a little after dark, you notice a big truck in the rearview. Then: an accident. Your car spills down an embankment. Next thing, you wake up on a thin mattress on a concrete floor, your banged-up leg cuffed to a pipe on the wall. Your host is a barely hinged Navy vet named Howard, who looks exactly like John Goodman, and he's explaining that you can't leave this basement bunker of his for the next, oh, year or so, because "there's been an attack," maybe by Russians, maybe by Martians, and everyone above ground is toast.
This is the mousetrap that ordinary/screwed protagonist Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, forever the Helen of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") finds herself in to kick off "10 Cloverfield Lane." The thematic follow-up to the 2008 found-footage monster movie "Cloverfield" isn't a sequel per se; essentially, it was a spec script (originally titled "The Cellar") that caught the attention of J.J. Abrams' production company and was folded into the "Cloverfield" universe to gin up interest. What could've been a perfectly serviceable little indie thriller thus was warped — maybe not for the better — to dovetail with the milieu and maybe the events of the under-explained "Cloverfield."
The good news, though, is that the movie was made at all, and that its bare-bones cast is terrific: Goodman as the rational-to-the-point-of-deranged survivalist who had the foresight to build the bunker; Winstead as the unwilling guest who comes to trust her host's paranoia even as other mysteries arise; and the affable John Gallagher Jr. as an amiable local named Emmett who managed to wangle his way into the bunker at the last moment. The production is spare; a decent community theater could've staged this in three acts on a single box set built like the basement from "That '70s Show" as imagined by Costco. The unseen hero of the production is Bear McCreary, whose score and musical selections (particularly the inspired choice of "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tommy James and the Shondells) keep the story motoring ahead even as the walls constrict you.
Dan Trachtenburg directs here; you've never heard of him because this $5 million picture is the biggest thing he's ever turned in. He may be stuck in a mole hole but he'll have you looking at it from every cranny and corner, inside of ducts, looking down from ceilings. A couple of times he gets you close enough to doors to actually look outside. What's there ain't pretty, and only serves to turn up the burner on the poor schlubs underground. The twist that "10 Cloverfield Lane" plays on the usual claustrophobic escape flick is the bleakness it presents at the prospect of escape. So you get out — then what? But get out, you must. Goodman's turn as Howard is genuinely unnerving. The safety and comfort he's offering, seemingly without an ask in return, still comes across as menacing, untenable. And he's the rare antagonist who's nearly as observant as the audience. Michelle and Emmett can barely stay ahead of him, and you've got only a smidge more vantage than they have.
What's outside the bunker, when revealed, will remind you that it is in fact a J.J. Abrams-produced film and the year is indeed 2016. Even that few minutes isn't enough to shake off the confines of being in a tomb for an hour and a half. Despite the intrigue the movie's marketing built up, no one at the screening I saw hung around to see what came after the credits. Instead everyone went for the exits, toward fresh air and open skies.