Published on March 30th, 2016 | by Dan Gvozden



Alfred Hitchcock once famously described his interpretation of the difference between “suspense” and “surprise” by describing two similar and yet distinctly different scenes. In both scenes two people are eating and talking when a bomb goes off, but what makes the difference between whether that bomb going off is a surprise or the culmination of a suspenseful scene is whether or not the audience knows about the bomb ahead of time. Hitchcock wisely argues that if the audience learns of the bomb’s existence at the time of its explosion they are only being treated to a brief surprise. However, if the audience is aware of the bomb for the entire conversation, they are provided an entire scene of building suspense.

10 Cloverfield Lane“10 Cloverfield Lane” finds a way to permanently lock its audience somewhere between surprise and suspense by suggesting that there may be bombs everywhere and surprising us with which ones turn out to be real. The biggest and most immediate threat comes from that of Howard, a man brought to gruff life by actor John Goodman, whose character barely holds back a mountain of rage, terror, and authoritarian violence. Goodman has played variations of his character throughout his career, but never quite so directly, and here he’s put front and center for audiences to fear and ponder.

Things are kicked into gear when Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in a wordless, emotional panic, reinforced by Bear McCreary’s unforgettable, punctuated score, mistakenly drives her car off the road. She wakes to find herself in an underground bunker/fallout shelter, an IV in her arm, and her busted leg chained to a pipe. Enter Howard, who presents himself as her savior but, as Michelle suspects, might be her ill-intentioned captor.

Howard explains that the air outside the bunker has become toxic and perhaps contaminated with some airborne disease due to a nuclear fallout. The script, written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle (the writer/director of “Whiplash”), provides enough evidence to suggest that both scenarios could be true, but is Michelle willing to risk the toxic air outside the bunker to test her suspicions that Howard’s intentions might not be what he suggests they are?

In his feature-film debut, director Dan Trachtenberg manages to elevate this bottle-episode, “Twilight Zone” concept into a white-knuckled, cinematic experience that wastes no time or detail. Every scene is deliberately paced to extend the suspense and unease, often stretching into the lengthy territory and thrills of the best moments from Tarantino. By limiting the camera and storytelling’s perspective to that of Michelle, the filmmakers force the audience to live in the moment alongside her as she slowly begins to unravel the mysterious and dangerous situation she finds herself in.

10-cloverfield-lane-is-probably-not-a-sequel-and-that-s-okay-800537What makes this experience all the more enjoyable is that Michelle isn’t your average scream queen. No, she’s a highly motivated and capable protagonist that instead of shrinking from a problem chooses to directly confront it with the best of sensibilities. This is a welcome change for the genre and one that only serves to elevate the threat she faces. If even the best of intentions and actions can’t outthink and outmaneuver her opposition, what can? It also forces the screenwriters to come up with more devious challenges and dramatic situations for Michelle, portrayed by the always underrated and fiercely alert Winstead.

But what puts “10 Cloverfield Lane” over the top is just how it explodes Hitchcock’s bomb. Nearly all mystery thrillers tease a stunning reveal in the third act that will present the truth behind the events of the film, but few are as bold and as satisfying “10 Cloverfield Lane’s” jaw-dropping surprise. Many viewers may suspect that the film is cheating – by having its cake and eating it too – but it’s only because few to no films ever dare to go quite as far as “10 Cloverfield Lane” does in its final moments. That the final surprise is also an incredible payoff on Michelle’s emotional journey and is completely earned puts “10 Cloverfield Lane” in the running for one of the most assured filmmaking debuts of all time.

Tags: , , , ,

About the Author

Do you remember that dorky kid from elementary school who loved movies and comic books? Dan's him, but an adult... well in most senses of the word. All that matters is that he's an aficionado of all things pop culture and wants to share his interests with the world.

Back to Top ↑
  • Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterCheck Our Feed