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J.J. Abrams loves mystery almost to a fault. With 10 Cloverfield Lane, he gets it exactly right.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Until recently, the existence of 10 Cloverfield Lane, produced by J.J. Abrams, was a closely guarded secret.

Like its predecessor, the 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield, the movie was produced entirely without fanfare or long-lead marketing. No plot details or character descriptions were leaked; there were no set photos, no interviews with stars, no advertisements or media of any kind. The release of 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t announced at all until the middle of January, in a surprise trailer attached to 13 Hours, barely two months before its debut.

Viewers weren’t the only ones who didn't know it was coming. Even the cast of 10 Cloverfield didn’t know they were making a follow-up to Cloverfield. As David Ehrlich reported in Rolling Stone, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead learned the title of the film, and its relationship to the original, just an hour before the surprise trailer went online. There are secret government programs with a bigger public footprint than this movie had until the last couple of weeks before its debut.

Secrecy has been a hallmark of Abrams's work throughout his cinematic career. It’s been a marketing choice as well as a narrative choice, and we see both at play in 10 Cloverfield Lane, which doles out its revelations, big and small, with devastating skill and precision. It’s a movie that shows the cinematic power secrets can hold when they’re used effectively.

10 Cloverfield Lane smartly keeps both its characters and the audience guessing

10 Cloverfield Lane is built on secrets. Throughout most of the movie, which was directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken, and Damien Chazelle, viewers don’t really know what’s going on. And the way it keeps viewers in the dark is by keeping its characters in the dark — in particular, the protagonist, Michelle, played by Winstead.

When we first meet Michelle, she’s fleeing her apartment to escape a troubled relationship. The details are vague — something about an argument — but they don’t matter. We know enough, which is that she’s trying to get away and start life anew. But as she drives out of the city, she’s involved in a horrific wreck. And when she wakes up, she’s chained to the wall in an underground bunker, held against her will by an apparently disturbed man named Howard (John Goodman), who insists there’s been some sort of attack, that the air above ground isn’t safe.

The movie generates suspense through Michelle’s uncertainty: She doesn’t know Howard, doesn’t know what, if anything, happened above ground. And Howard seems like a potentially dangerous crank: He carries a gun and a knife, is prone to violent outbursts, and speculates that Martians might be responsible for contaminating the atmosphere. A fellow resident of the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) attests to some of Howard’s basic story, but even he knows very little in the way of solid information.

Most of the movie, then, is a process of discovery — about Howard and who he really is, about Michelle and how she ended up in the bunker, and ultimately about what’s really happening in the outside world.

It’s remarkably tense, a feeling that stems from the basic fact that Michelle — and by extension, the audience — doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. The movie is told entirely from her point of view, and even the camerawork, which hovers close to her face to show her feelings of confusion and pans widely around the cramped bunker space to let us see it as she does, often seems to mimic her vision and state of mind. We know only what she knows.

Using secrets in this fashion doesn’t just create suspense. It draws us closer to the characters who are trying to figure them out, making us identify with them as we see the world through their eyes and creating a shared set of experiences. They become an extension of the viewer.

The way mysteries are handled can make or break a film

10 Cloverfield Lane saves its biggest surprises for last. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just say this: You really don’t know what you’re getting into, and you don’t want to know.

In a way, then, the movie’s marketing mirrors the structure of the movie itself, withholding crucial information in order to build suspense and excitement.

That’s par for the course for Abrams, who tends to build mystery and deception into the marketing for a lot of his work: The television show Lost, which he helped create, was an extended tease about a mysterious island. The original Cloverfield (which, like this one, Abrams produced but didn’t direct) was announced with a trailer that didn’t even reveal the movie’s name and only vaguely hinted at the giant monster the film would eventually unveil. The Abrams-directed Star Trek Into Darkness withheld the name of its main villain, Khan, a callback to the antagonist from series-favorite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, giving him the fake name of John Harrison in promotional material. His Mission: Impossible III relied on a mystery MacGuffin — the "rabbit’s foot" — whose true nature was never revealed at all.

These mystery maneuvers are part of what define Abrams as a filmmaker and cinematic impresario, but they don’t always work. In some cases, as with Cloverfield, they're just marketing gimmickry, designed to generate attention through surprise. In other cases, as with M:I–3, they're essentially a narrative shortcut — a way of suggesting the possibility of something truly revolutionary without ever having to explain what it is. Many of Lost's big mysteries worked this way too, engaging and enraging viewers by refusing to make clear what was actually going on.

And in still other cases, as with Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s a bit of both — a way of teasing fans (many of whom suspected that Khan might play a role in the film) and referencing a beloved franchise character without doing the work of truly developing him as a character. (Abrams has since expressed regret for Into Darkness's handling of Khan.)

But the mystery works in 10 Cloverfield Lane because it’s built into the story, growing organically out of the characters' experience and creating a connection between the protagonist and the audience.

That connection is strong enough that when things go truly nuts at the end, you’re already bought in. You accept what you're seeing, because Michelle does. The mystery isn’t designed to frustrate viewers, or to cheat them, or to tease them with possibilities that are never paid off, but rather to draw them more deeply into the film's world.

And that’s the real secret to using this sort of cinematic trickery and deception: The mystery is only as good as the story it tells.