A SORT-OF sequel to J J Abrams’s found-footage 2008 hit Cloverfield, the film steers clear of it but for the name. In reality, it is a much, much cleverer take on the horror-film, end-of-the-world genre where what lies outside is as dangerous as what is brewing within. And comes just before this summer’s blockbusters get ready to hit us.
Michelle (Winstead) leaves her fiance in a huff one fine afternoon — their story wrapped up succinctly in scenes of her packing and a set of keys and a ring left behind by her on the counter. Driving away, she has a bad accident and when she comes to, she finds herself injured and chained to a pole in a locked room.
The door opens with a mighty clang and who should walk in but Goodman, that actor of reassuring girth who seems more and more unbalanced as the days pass. Playing Howard, an ex-Navy man, he tells Michelle that, while she has been out cold, there has been an attack — “it could be chemical, it could be nuclear” — and he doesn’t know by whom — “it could be Russians, it could be Martians”. And that the two of them, plus a man beaten up by him earlier, Emmett (Gallagher Jr), could be the only ones left alive. The air outside is toxic, Michelle is told, and so they must stay in the bunker Howard has built for “a year or two”.
As Michelle, and we, listen incongruous, Howard shows the planning he has put in for precisely such a scenario. Apart from the food stocks, that includes how to keep the air clean, dispose of the trash, provide for entertainment and medical supplies, have a living area, and a working kitchen.
It is a smashing performance from Goodman, who never lets you feel settled about how to feel about Howard. Clearly some of what he is saying is true, but why insist on keeping them all locked in? Why all the talk about a certain Megan? Why the violence? Why the insistence on not touching? And yet, Howard can be kind in his concerns, and leave Michelle and Emmett alone for long spells as they develop a genuinely warm and thankfully asexual relationship.
Winstead puts in a strong performance as well, always watchful and never too vulnerable. Most hearteningly, the film gives even Gallagher Jr immense chance to make a mark as the third wheel.
With Abrams as producer, debutant director Trachtenberg paces this film extremely well despite its all-of-three characters and the constrained space they are in, without any gimmicks. Co-scripted by Damien Chazelle of Whiplash, it instead plays consistently on the mind, on our known and unknown horrors, and the horrors we have been told to expect — whether terrestrial terror or extra-terrestrial.
In one scene, Emmett tells Michelle how Howard, whom he has known from before, would always tell him to be prepared for dangers that could come from anywhere, “such as Russia, South Korea…”. “You mean North Korea?” she asks. “Oh, is that the crazy one? Then, yes that,” he says.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr