Weird, Overlooked, Wonderful 08: Panic Room

In Which They Don’t Bury People Alive Anymore

One of the great difficulties of writing about media is when you come across something that is incredibly solid. A sturdy, thoroughly well made production that doesn’t transcend the upper echelons of art, but fulfills all of its intended goals with panache. It’s a sort of meat and potatoes conundrum: how to describe the joys of something thats just well done. An answer might be in the preparation, for no matter how many times one can sit down to classic meals, a chef can still do a lot to make things shine.

Such is the case with David Fincher’s excellent 2002 film Panic Room. A fastidious thriller that is at once a perfect piece of genre exercise, and a feature that Fincher can claim all for his own. A movie that sits in the interesting balance of generic Hollywood fare and Auteur guided blockbuster. A flick that tickles both the general audience lizard brain and delights the cineaste with its obvious flourishes and trademark tricks.

For all intents and purposes its a small and simple movie with one slightly high concept premise. Panic Room follows recent divorcee Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (a very young Kristen Stewart) as they move into a new home that has one odd feature: the titular chamber. On their first night a gang of robbers break into the house led by the blustering Junior (Jared Leto), with cool headed Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and the psychotic Raoul (Dwight Yoakum). The robbers want into the panic room as the mother and daughter bunker down in that cloister. Thus a constantly ratcheting game of cat and mouse is created.

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The premise and structure is pure paperback, but I don’t want to say that Fincher elevates the material. This isn’t the matter of a master craftsman adding respect to a normally trashed genre (here the home invasion thriller), instead it’s Fincher applying his skill as a high level talent to make the material at hand as exciting as possible. There’s a reason the airport paperback sells, and Fincher wants to transfer that page turning thrill to the big screen.

There are multiple elements that aid in this process. From the ground up is David Koepp’s script. It doesn’t indulge in anything overly twisty or literary, but is smart enough to keep the story moving, upping the stakes in a tangible ways without sacrificing too much of ones narrative scrutiny. The next is that Fincher has assembled an able crew of actors who can bring a broad understanding to their characters without tipping over into cliche. Certainly each performer matches to a type: Foster is steely, Stewart tomboyish, Leto aggravating, Yoakum unnerving, and Whitaker professional. But all of the performers knock their positions off balance just enough to keep the audience on their toes. The robbers are more resourceful and violent than one would expect, but they aren’t superhuman. Meg and Sarah have the wiliness to thwart the encroachment of the thieves, but not without some flubbed plans and setbacks.

The biggest up, of course, is Fincher’s hand behind the camera. What could have been the expected route for a mostly single setting pressure cooker is inverted, for as our characters are confined to one claustrophobic setting the camera is completely set free. The audience’s view is entirely untethered from a naturalistic perspective, and instead we are treated to hyper-real tracking shots that ease around the property to perfectly establish its geography.

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Such ostentatious displays of virtuosity might be critiqued as overly florid. Does the viewer really need a CGI enhanced shot of a camera gliding through the handle of a cup or in and out of a keyhole? The answer is most likely no, but it forms a cohesive aesthetic and allows the viewer insight to the total topography of the house. No inch is unaccounted for, even as the characters must scramble to uncover another nook or cranny to utilize in their plans for infiltration or egress.

Thus we are treated to a perfect chess board for which Fincher can move his pieces about both naturally and to maximize tension. We know that if Burnham is standing in a certain corner of a certain room that he won’t be visible by the cameras set up in the bunker. This backhand understanding of place is where so much excitement is derived. Games of perspective, vision, and obfuscation employed to inch an audience closer and closer to the precipice of their seat.

Such virtuoso displays might be one of the reasons Panic Room has sunk to the bottom of Fincher’s filmography in terms recognizability. It was a profitable feature, and well enough received to be considered more than a triviality. But it could also be brushed off as a try hard attempt to regain the public’s attention after the relative bomb of Fight Club. Fincher’s efforts to create geographical cohesion written off as flash to distract from the nothing story. While true that Panic Room does little more than take the viewer through a rollercoaster of clockwork tension, it accomplishes said goal with tact, care and precision. A rarity even in the days when Hollywood would churn out mid-level features like this.

As such  Panic Room is then caught in the popcorn flick/auteur film limbo, satisfying both to a high level but without grander ambitions beyond such satisfactions. It’s the simple sword refined perfectly by the astute craftsman: swift and efficient with only one dogged purpose. So it succeeds as entertainment even if its legacy abounds in an odd critical liminal space.

Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful?

Overlooked and wonderful no doubt. A perfect movie to toss on Hulu and lose yourself to for its approximate 2 hour running time. Weird is another question, it’s such an archetypal piece of genre that its hard to peg as out and out bizarre. However, Fincher’s style is strong enough for it to push through in this category as well as the others.

Odds and Ends

  • One of the reasons this movie may have fallen between the cracks is that falls right between the Fincher: 90’s maverick and the Fincher: new millennium mastermind. It’s hard to stack up being the middle child between Fight Club and Zodiac.
  • Stewart gets major props for showing the chops that makes her believed now. Reserved, but emotional, and unable to convey ideas through facial expressions and looks.
  • Also Fincher knows how to use Leto, make him the person everyone hates.
  • Don’t know if its a direct reference, but the end of this films is very similar to the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.