In honor of the upcoming Gone Girl, I’m reviewing each film in David Fincher’s staggering career.
At no point in Panic Room, David FIncher’s thrilling follow-up to Fight Club, is it ever less than explicitly obvious this is a B movie. It proudly wears its pulpy heart on its sleeve, and everything, from the screenplay to the meticulously designed visuals, has been strategically designed to suck the air out of your lungs. At some point, Fight Club stops being fun and starts to sucker punch you with its themes instead; this never happens in Panic Room. The thin narrative and non-complex characters are proud machinations of Friday night movie fun, making Panic Room Fincher’s most easily enjoyed (or, accessible) film to date. Playing off on yet another fear felt by most people, this is a story of home invasion. It’s a master artisan elevating B movie material, making a film that’s at once a perverted reverse of Rear Window and a more lethal Home Alone.
Like a good thriller does, Panic Room spends the first fifteen minutes telling us the house rules. There’s a huge house, a panic room with a stupidly dangerous door, and rumors of a missing fortune. It’s a deadly combination of circumstances that spells doom for Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recently divorced mother that, like all Fincher characters, just holds it together. She and her 11 year old daughter Sarah (a very androgynous Kristen Stewart) are house shopping and settle on a gorgeous four story brownstone in the Upper West Side of New York City. The previous owner was a reclusive millionaire that was paranoid to the point he installed a sophisticated panic room connected to the master bedroom. It has a metallic sliding door that whirs loudly as it rushes shut, and the only thing stopping it from smashing a hand, foot, or head are two pen tip thin green lasers—one near the top and one near the bottom. So when three intruders (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam) break in and the Altmans run to the Panic Room, the home becomes a battleground for them and a playhouse for Fincher. It’s one of the film’s most enjoyable ironies to see a director having so much fun despite the fist clenching anxiety of our heroes.
Instead of making it a slow burn and feigning the security of the Altman family to make the audience comfortable, Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp are quick to lay on the dread. Panic Room begins with a stunning opening credits sequence that’s Fincher’s version of those from North by Northwest, with huge off white letters spookily hovering along the sides of and in between buildings. If you can ignore the foreboding strings of Howard Shore’s excellent score, these opening minutes are (more or less) the only with sunlight and any form of cheeriness whatsoever. Darkness and gloom is Fincher’s natural state, and he wastes no time getting there: once we descend to the street level view following the Altman’s to the house, the colors are brown and dull; once we get inside, the house is musty and greyed. We wait only 8 minutes until it’s night, and less than ten for rain to relentlessly batter against the home. It’s only a little after the fifteen minute mark do the villains emerge from the shadows. In an era of movies with over-exposition, it’s well considered of Fincher to so swiftly bring a vulnerable mother and daughter into danger.
There’s less to these people than the leads of any other Fincher film—from a Koepp script this is no surprise—but the performances are so acute and emotive that it doesn’t matter. Foster, as always, finds a brilliant line between sexy and smart that makes her a pleasure to watch. Kristen Stewart does enough to be believable, and for a child actor, that’s tremendous. Whitaker is earnest as a crook that’s down on his luck, Yoakam makes his burglar the kind of guy you sit away from on the bus, and Leto is hilarious and loud. He even has corn rows. Cleverly, however, Koepp’s script doesn’t focus on the conventional nuclear family in a conventional middle class home: the way thrillers and horror movies usually operate. Instead, by targeting a family that’s accessible but rich, it paints a terrifying picture that a home invasion could happen to anyone.
Panic Room has aged like a fine wine, actually having more to say in 2014 than it did in 2002. Technology is both our God and our Devil, our savior and our enemy. The Altman family is reliant on technology to survive via the panic room, but they are literally trapped inside that reliance. It’s an apt metaphor for our times that has so much more relevance in the 12 years since it came out that it’s spooky. It’s also compelling to see two slightly masculine female characters leading a major studio thriller, something with more political significance today than at the time of release.
If Se7en was Fincher’s noir and Fight Club was his romantic comedy, then Panic Room is certainly his Hitchcock. From the aforementioned opening credits to the premise and the style, it all screams classic Hitch. Instead of a pervert spying on his neighbors as seen in Rear Window, Meg Altman is a voyeur to the men breaking into own her home, peering at them not through binoculars, but an elaborate video surveillance system. The rules of engagement are also similar: She’s powerless to fight them directly, so she can only think of clever counter-moves. She trades a camera with a blinding flash with a lighter, and watching Fincher inhabit the old master’s mindset is half of Panic Room’s fun.
He also riffs Rope, a film Hitchcock shot to give the illusion it was all captured in (pretty much) a single take. While Fincher doesn’t go that far, the dominating style of his 2002 thriller evokes many of the same techniques but in the cgi era: the camera looks as though it moves through walls, floors, and even keyholes, all to give the impression of the camera’s mastery of the entire space. The effect is chilling, almost as though the camera is in a dialogue with both the space of the house as well as the people that inhabit it. As Fincher notes in the commentary, the terminator-like exactness makes the break-in feel almost pre-ordained and logical, tightening the tension even more. Lesser a film though it may be, Panic Room exemplifies a rare marriage of form and content that, for a film so superficial, is at times exhilarating to behold. The “date movie” has rarely been more sophisticated or tightly wound.
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