’10 Cloverfield Lane’ and the Limitations of the “Mystery Box”

Early in Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman on an impromptu road trip, stops to gas up at a roadside establishment called “Kelvin’s Quick Stop.” That must mean something, I decided, scribbling the name down in my notebook, eagerly awaiting the reveal of a temperature-related calamity. (There’s not one.) Shortly thereafter, I made careful note of how Howard (John Goodman) was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the (fictional) East Missouri Wolves football team — in the same scene as a lingering close-up of The Call of the Wild on a bathroom reading shelf. That must mean something too, I decided, and scribbled furiously. (It maybe did, but not really.)

You get the idea. This kind of highly engaged, frame scouring, connect-the-dots viewing isn’t exclusive to the work of J.J. Abrams, the producer of 10 Cloverfield Lane (and its 2008 sort-of predecessor, Cloverfield), but he’s turned it into his brand. Even casual viewers know about Abrams’ theory of the “Mystery Box,” coined in a now legendary 2007 TED talk that pretty much laid out his storytelling ethos. He used the metaphor of a mysterious box he picked up as a child at a Manhattan magic shop, with question marks on the outside and unidentified objects shuffling around inside, and concluded that nothing he could find in it was as exciting as the mere possibility of what could be there. And thus: “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything — the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”

But the problem with Abrams’ work is that the “often” has become “always,” and 10 Cloverfield Lane is, sadly, not an exception. Let’s get two things out of the way up front: 1) Until its final ten minutes, Cloverfield Lane is a dazzling, absorbing, sometimes unbearably tense thriller, an efficient and precise three-hander that rarely takes a false step or sounds a false note. And 2) I’m not going to “spoil” what happens in those last ten minutes so calm down, though I’ll say the decision not to do so is as tied as much to not sharing a bummer as it is to a studio request (and, y’know, common courtesy).

John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Goodman in "10 Cloverfield Lane"
John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Goodman in “10 Cloverfield Lane”

So let’s deal with what happens before then. Michelle is on the highway, fleeing her normal life in a sequence that, in its tone and scoring, recalls the opening scenes of Psycho — and turns out to be as much of a red herring. There’s a horrible car crash; she wakes up on a cot in a concrete room, hooked up to an IV, cuffed to a pipe. Soon she meets the man who put her there: Howard, a survivalist who tells her there’s been an attack, “I’m not sure yet if it’s nuclear or chemical, but down here you’re safe.” By “down here” he means his underground bunker, protected from the now-contaminated air, stocked with a multi-year supply of food and essentials. “Everyone outside of here is dead,” he assures her.

And therein lies the essential question and conflict of the ingenious screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle: is Howard telling the truth? He’s clearly a little bit bonkers, not only for having built a shelter like that, but for his talk of “the Martians” and “the Russkies,” his short fuse, and the way he gets weirdly evasive about the absent daughter whose clothes and magazines he has on hand. Maybe his story is bullshit; maybe this is a kidnapping, a Room (or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) situation, and the specter of potential assault hangs thick over their early encounters. But then there’s Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), Howard’s neighbor, who helped him build the bunker, saw the flash of light (“Like something you’d read about in the Bible”), and broke his arm trying to get in with them. But what if Emmett isn’t telling the truth either?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "10 Cloverfield Lane"
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in “10 Cloverfield Lane”

The smart script works through all those variations and possibilities, swinging Michelle to and fro from fearing Howard to believing him, and back. Director Trachtenberg (making his feature directorial debut) puts these three characters into the palm of his hand and squeezes; he does not leave this confined space and does not let us know any more than Michelle does. We thus must interpret everything from looks, words, and tone — an empathetic, experiential mode of storytelling (given extra juice by the borderline assaultive sound design, in which every clang, smash, and slam further underscores her containment).

Thus, for a studio tentpole IMAX movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane is refreshingly heavy on people talking to each other. It doesn’t hurt to have such gifted actors doing the talking. Gallagher, familiar as the sturdy and reliable nice-guy from Short Term 12 and The Newsroom, plays his character simply without playing him as “simple,” and his bit of backstory is surprisingly effective. Winstead’s endlessly likable in a role that effectively harnesses her vulnerability (and makes terrific use of her open, reactive face). But the MVP here is Goodman, who is so gifted at pivoting between folksy teddy bear and paranoid lunatic — or, even better, playing them simultaneously — that the question of who he is and what he’s up to remains tantalizingly up in the air.

But what goes up must come down, and that’s where 10 Cloverfield Lane falls apart — because the questions it asks are so much more interesting than their answers. I know, I know, modern audiences hate ambiguity, and they’ve got a franchise to attend to, and so on. But Trachtenberg and his screenwriters make such a meal of their elegantly unknowable, Twilight Zone-ish construct for so long, it’s depressing to watch it degenerate into such uninspired, been-there done-that territory. It’s a film worth seeing, and enjoying for the many pleasures it offers up until then. But when you get down to it, yet again, the mystery box has trumped the lump of coal inside.

10 Cloverfield Lane is out tomorrow.