David Fincher hasn’t made a bad movie yet. His directorial debut was the dark and tense Alien 3. Since then he’s made Seven, The Game, and Fight Club. All bear the Fincher signature: heavy use of blacks and shadows, tense and brooding emotion, and average heroes powerless to control their own fate.
Fincher’s best film is also his most recent — Fight Club. Therefore, as a fan of Fincher’s, it was impossible to walk into Panic Room without high expectations, and although Panic Room is good, it’s not Fincher’s best. In that sense, Panic Room is a bit of a disappointment.
Still, it’s easy to appreciate Panic Room on its own merits.
Three Main Characters
Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, a New Yorker with a 12-year-old daughter. Meg is going through a divorce from her rich husband, and she has to find a new place to live. Since she’ll be spending her husband’s money, she aims high.
The first twenty minutes introduce us to the three main characters — Meg, her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), and the brownstone apartment where the rest of the action will take place. Ian Buchanan plays an informative, snooty realtor who shows us the four floors, the elevator, the security systems, and of course, the panic room.
A panic room, in case you haven’t seen the ads, is a secure room in your castle where you can hide from invading barbarians.
Time to Panic
Their first night in the new house, Meg and Sarah are awakened by burglars. As quickly as possible, Meg and Sarah lock themselves in the panic room. But the intruders (among them an outstanding Forrest Whitaker) aren’t there for the TV and the CD player. They want something more valuable and it’s locked in the panic room with our heroes.
Inside the room Meg has the advantage of security and information (a bank of video cameras watches the house), but outside, the crooks have freedom of movement, greater resources, and just as important, the only gun in the movie.
The film plays out as an ever-evolving war. Moves and countermoves, strategies and tactics escalate the stakes in the battle for the house. A ploy will only work once before the other side learns how to counter the maneuver. The tension is impeccable and Fincher keeps it up for nearly the entire movie.
Nevertheless, the setting is problematic. There is only so much you can do with finite resources. After a while, you’ve seen just about everything there is to see. It’s too easy to predict the twists and turns, knowing that the action can’t leave the house.
Visual Roots and Dark Tributes
The story is more narrowly focused than any of Hitchcock’s movies, but certain aspects of the Master of Suspense are apparent. For example, the main characters are everyday people caught in a web of crime, and suspense and tension rule the film. And Howard Shore’s heavy, dark music is about as close to Bernard Herrmann’s as we get in 2002.
Fincher also seems to be paying tribute to Orson Welles, in particular, Citizen Kane. In 1941 Welles changed cinema with his high-contrast lighting, low-angle photography, and moving camera technique. Fincher too uses dark and light as though they were tangible. Creepy low angle shots make this “perfect” house seem twisted. And finally, a fantastic moving camera travels through impossible spaces, not unlike the shot in Kane that flies through a sign, through a skylight, and in to the action.
Still, Fincher has his own unmistakable visual style, and it’s quite apparent in Panic Room. He used impossible camera moves before in Fight Club, where the camera becomes tiny and flies through a gas pipe or out the pores in someone’s face. Also, ever since Seven, Fincher has grabbed the audience’s attention with unique title designs. For Panic Room, gigantic letters float perfectly among the buildings in New York’s crowded skyline, spelling out the talent behind the movie. It’s a visual flourish that is not really relevant to the story, but it’s cool.
Four Good Actors
As for the performances, not a single one was misplayed. Jodie Foster has both strength and vulnerability as the frightened mother. Kristen Stewart has the confidence and edge of Edward Furlong in Terminator 2 without the mediocre dialogue. And two of the three burglars are strokes of casting genius. Forrest Whitaker has a soft face and gentle eyes — you’d never peg him for a criminal. And Dwight Yoakam (who terrorized Karl in Sling Blade), proves to be one of the better singer-turned-actors in the business.
It is safe to say that David Fincher has still not directed a bad movie. If Panic Room is a disappointment, it has as much to do with my elevated expectations as anything else. For Fincher’s next film, I’ll probably have lower expectations, which probably ought to make me enjoy it even more.