10 Cloverfield Lane | Film review – Off-kilter comedy and white-knuckle scares

A psychological thriller with a twist, the teasingly titled 10 Cloverfield Lane lets us know we’re in for an unnerving time from the start.

A young woman is running away from a relationship, her flight by car from the city instantly rendered unsettling by the accompaniment of hurrying, high-pitched strings. Composer Bear McCreary is clearly nodding to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, and director Dan Trachtenberg – working from a script by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle – is evidently in a Hitchcockian mood, too.

“I’m going to keep you alive”

Of course, things didn’t work out well for Psycho’s fugitive heroine and they don’t here for Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle. Her car is knocked off the road in a collision and she wakes to find herself in a cinder-block bunker, handcuffed to a wall with an IV drip in her arm and her leg in a brace.

The bunker’s creator is John Goodman’s gloomy survivalist Howard, who declares he has rescued her, not only from the car crash but also from an apocalyptic calamity that has befallen the US. ‘I’m going to keep you alive,’ he announces, though it’s hard for Michelle to tell if this is a promise or a threat. Is Howard her saviour or her Fritzl-like captor?

Released from the cuffs, she encounters the bunker’s third occupant, John Gallagher Jr’s good-old-boy Emmett – although, again, it is initially unclear whether he is a fellow captive or an accomplice.

The perils outside remain somewhat hazily defined, but the only course for this trio of survivors, or so Howard avers, is to stay inside for a year or two. Not that the bunker’s inhabitants have need to worry; he has plenty of board games and jigsaw puzzles, and a jukebox boasting such vintage – nudgingly ironic – pop songs as The Shondells’ ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ to while away the time.

“Black comedy and white-knuckle scares”

It’s best not to give too much else away (although the title alone will be a tip off for some). Suffice to say that first-time feature director Trachtenberg beautifully executes the claustrophobic three-handed drama that ensues, steadily ratcheting the tension as the mood inside the bunker slides back and forth between black comedy and white-knuckle scares, the source of menace (inside or outside?) similarly shifting.

The performances are terrific, too. Goodman’s patriarchal conspiracy theorist is simultaneously sinister and pitiful, creepy and absurd; Gallagher Jr does useful third-wheel service; and Winstead makes a credibly gutsy survivor.

Indeed, when events get even more terrifying, she handles herself with remarkable aplomb. I wish I could say the same but have to admit I spent most of the movie ricocheting between the sides of my cinema seat, feeling like a ball in a pinball machine.

Certificate 12A. Runtime 103 mins.  Director Dan Trachtenberg

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