It’s not completely clear what the ultimate Cloverfield continuity encompasses, but producer J.J. Abrams’ answer to an anthology series a la Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories or Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story started with a 2008 found footage Godzilla thriller and in 2016 features a completely different set of characters and a storyline which may or may not occupy that same cinematic universe. Dan Trachtenberg’s eerie and suspenseful 10 Cloverfield Lane (B+) centers on a compelling performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead held captive in a doomsday bunker by John Goodman in a sublimely creepy role with comic relief from John Gallagher, Jr., who is either a fellow captive or conspirator. Themes of gamesmanship are explored as the three characters play each other and confound audience expectations. There may or may not be a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or full-out war breaking out beyond the survivalist lair. Trachtenberg succeeds in crafting a tense and taut succession of action set pieces within a confined space and with old-fashioned tools and techniques and a propulsive throwback score. He earns his scares and wins hearts with spot-on performances. The acting, especially by Winstead, is uniformly outstanding; and the thrills compound in the final act. You don’t need to know a thing going in, and don’t expect to know it all coming out; but this film is a rollicking good time. The rest is classified.
The central gimmick of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (B) – of mother and son imprisoned in a secluded shed for many years – peaks early; and after the inevitable escape attempt, there’s nowhere else to go as the plot plumbs the psychological aftermath. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give breakthrough performances as a family forged in trauma, and the close bond they form is a highlight of the film. The heavy-handed symbolism of the early sequences that feel virtually in utero (is the room actually the womb?) versus a wider expanse of the great big world as its own mental prison never gather the intended gravitas. Still, much of the film is gripping, and the performances are fresh and affecting. Once the central duo is expanded to a more established stunt-casting ensemble including Joan Allen and William H. Macy, it just doesn’t get more compelling. The film simply continues to long for the confined spaces and finer acting of the mysterious opening moments.