The film focuses on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom we see in a
largely wordless prologue leaving her fiancé Ben (Bradley Cooper) and driving determinedly out
of the city. Along a deserted stretch of highway she’s in an accident
while listening to Ben’s last voicemail, and wakes up in an underground
bunker, chained to a cement wall.
Soon Howard (John Goodman) appears with a tray of food, telling her
that he’s saved her from a disaster that’s struck the outside
world—perhaps an invasion by one of the USA’s many earthly enemies,
perhaps something extraterrestrial—that has contaminated the air and
left the rest of the population dead or dying. The two of them—along
with Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.), a handyman who helped Howard build his
safe, homey, well-stocked cellar—will remain secure as long as they
stay where they are and work together to survive.
The big question is whether Howard is, in fact, sane or a dangerous
nut job. Certainly his actions could support either view. At times
he’s matter-of-fact, even friendly. But there’s a clear note of menace
in his manner, and he’s volatile, turning on a dime to become enraged
and threatening. There’s also something strange about his references to
his daughter, whose clothes he offers to Michelle.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more of the plot than that. But director Dan Trachtenberg demonstrates considerable skill in framing and delivering
the narrative. Except for sequences at the beginning and end, the cinematography happily eschews the jittery, hand-held style of
the original Cloverfield in favor of steady, straightforward
camerawork that concentrates the intensity. Brear McCreary’s score
contributes to the mood as well.
Of course, none of that would matter much without the dead-on
performances. Except for a few instances, John Goodman sheds the geniality
that has marked much of his past work, fashioning a convincing portrait
of a fearsome bear of a man who nevertheless might just be right about
what’s happening to the outside world. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, meanwhile, is no mere
damsel in distress; in her hands Michelle is a formidable figure in her
own right, clever, persistent and willing to go to extremes to do what
she believes necessary. And John Gallagher, Jr. makes Emmet an engaging doofus,
with a streak of nobility in his scruffy soul. This is a chamber piece:
these three carry the picture comfortably, and one glimpses only one
other person in the flesh during the course of the entire picture. This is an unsettling three-character suspense drama that will keep you guessing from start to finish.