Directed by David Fincher
Written by David Koepp.
With Jodie Foster, Forest Whittaker, Kristen Stewart, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam.
A few weeks before PANIC ROOM opened, a friend and I were speculating about what twist it would take. Although David Fincher has always worked with different screenwriters, most of his films share one quality: a surprise ending that changes one’s perspective on everything that happened before. Well, the twist of PANIC ROOM is that there’s no twist. Frankly, it could have used one. The home-invasion thriller dates back to D. W. Griffith. Rather than living up to his promise as one of the most adventurous American directors to emerge over the 90s, Fincher brings nothing new to the table.
At the beginning of PANIC ROOM, Meg Altman (Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Stewart) are shopping for a new house. A recent divorcee, Meg decides to take a particularly secure mansion on New York’s Upper West Side. In addition to a wall of security cameras, this house has a special feature: an impenetrable “panic room” where Meg and Sarah can take safe refuge in case of burglary. While Meg and Sarah don’t realize it, there’s a fortune hidden in this room. Three thieves (Whittaker, Leto and Yoakam) arrive that night, mistakenly thinking that the house is still empty, to rob it. Waking Meg up, she and Sarah head for the panic room and decide how they can possibly defend themselves.
Although nominally set in New York, PANIC ROOM really takes place in Fincherland. It’s a city where nights are always dark and stormy, lighting is equally sinister (even before anything threatening happens, Meg’s house looks pretty unwelcoming), and production design either aims for dank grunge (a “designer-vomit” look, as Jonathan Rosenbaum described SEVEN) or glossy cool. PANIC ROOM strives for the latter. The house’s walls are light blue, a shade duplicated by the cinematographer’s palette in early scenes (although punctuated by beams of bright light through the windows.) It’s full of VERTIGO-inspired and vertigo-inducing staircases: indeed, Sarah complains that there are too many. The camera moves constantly and anxiously, with a few misguided “look how stylish I can be” moments, like a point-of-view shot of a key entering a lock. Driven by CGI, Fincher overdirects where a subtle touch might actually be tenser.
Playing “guess the subtext” with PANIC ROOM is a tempting but ultimately futile game. Is it an elaborate metaphor for the nervousness and depression induced by divorce and moving, eventually turning into a revenge fantasy? When Meg and Sarah first enter the panic room and spy on the thieves through their cameras, they might as well be moviegoers, especially since they’ve been trying desperately to understand the “story” playing out below them. That possibility lasts about 90 seconds. Soon, Meg discovers that she can talk back to the thieves. While they can’t talk to her, they can hold up signs: a form of 2-way communication unavailable to the audience. Hell, one can even perceive the film as a warning against the unreliability of cell phones, especially if you have the bad luck to get locked in a steel cage.
PANIC ROOM had the potential to indulge women-in-danger misogyny and racist paranoia. (Its trailer pushed the latter button.) However, it tries its best to steer clear from these areas. Burnham (Whittaker), who built the panic room, is the smartest and least violent of the thieves. The bearish Whittaker lends a dimension of parental warmth to his role, humanizing the character. Leto’s character, the only Anglo among the thieves (Yoakam’s character is apparently Latino) , is the dumbest and most thuggish. In fact, he seems to have wandered in from a particularly bad performance of a David Mamet play. Rather than dwelling on Meg and Sarah’s vulnerability, the film concentrates on their resourcefulness: when Leto floods their room with gas, Meg holds her breath and tapes the ventilation shaft shut. For the attack’s first two thirds, she proves herself capable of defending her family without a gun.
At a certain point, the plot’s turns come to seem (at best) like mechanical devices to keep the roller-coaster ride going and (at worst) simply ways to push the film to 110 minutes. Characters continually make odd decisions that can’t be completely accounted for by stress. Why would a man who designs panic rooms and knows how impregnable they are take the risk of agreeing to rob one, even if he thinks the house is empty? What if the house were empty, but its alarm system was on and the room locked?
Despite the single setting and handful of characters, Fincher keeps
cranking up the tension. Up to a certain point, it works, but the film
feels more hollow as it progresses. His last film, FIGHT CLUB, took all
sorts of political and narrative risks. It wound up being rather incoherent
in both departments, but at least Fincher aimed for provocation instead
of reassurance, hitting the target more often than not. Perhaps chastened
by its commercial failure, he takes a step back with PANIC ROOM. Its problem
isn’t that style beats substance singlehandedly. The real fault
is that its style is pretty damn bland.