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Forget the marketing: ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ sets its own course

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10 Cloverfield Lane

Three and a half stars

10 Cloverfield Lane Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

Don’t let the title fool you: Despite its mysterious marketing campaign masterminded by producer J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane has essentially nothing to do with the 2008 Abrams-produced found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. Originally a completely unrelated script titled The Cellar (and put into production under the title Valencia), Lane has been ever-so-slightly retrofitted to appear like it might sort of be connected to the earlier movie (whose writer and director, Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves, are credited as executive producers). But watching Lane with half your attention devoted to spotting connections to another movie would be the wrong way to go, since this is a tense, very well-acted thriller that stands solidly on its own.

Unlike its predecessor, Lane isn’t a found-footage movie, and it’s directed confidently and stylishly by Dan Trachtenberg, making a promising feature debut. Trachtenberg establishes tension early on, as a distraught Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees her New Orleans home after breaking up with her fiancé (Bradley Cooper, heard only over the phone). Blindsided by a speeding pick-up truck on the highway, Michelle crashes her car and wakes up with a brace on her leg, an IV in her arm and handcuffs chaining her to a pipe in an underground cement bunker.

That bunker belongs to Howard (John Goodman), a hulking survivalist who assures Michelle that an unspecified deadly attack occurred while she was out cold, that he saved her life by bringing her down to his fully stocked fallout shelter, and that she will certainly die if she goes outside. The other occupant of the bunker, a laid-back laborer named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), seems to confirm Howard’s story, but something obviously is not quite right.

Working from a screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, Trachtenberg keeps the tension high, and even with the knowledge that something monstrous is likely lurking in the background, the movie remains unpredictable. The more that Michelle learns about what is going on both outside the bunker and inside Howard’s mind, the more uncertain her situation becomes. Winstead, an underrated performer who’s equally good in genre films and low-key dramas, is excellent as the resourceful Michelle, who is constantly assessing her situation and working out her next move. Goodman is just as strong, projecting avuncular menace as a man whose paranoid volatility has seemingly been validated by the course of world events.

Trachtenberg films the majority of the movie in a handful of confined spaces, the small, cramped rooms of the bunker that Howard has attempted to dress up in his approximation of a comfortable home life. The tight framing emphasizes the world that’s closing in on the characters, and even when the climax opens up the action a bit, Trachtenberg stays focused on his expressive heroine. Although it may not actually continue the plot of Cloverfield, Lane follows its predecessor in key thematic ways, examining the small personal stories that occur in the margins of large-scale sci-fi disasters. The movie’s eventual reveals turn out to be a little anticlimactic (especially for audiences primed by the marketing campaign), but the journey to get there is as intense for the audience as it is for the characters.

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