Panic Room, 2002, US, 113 mins. Directed by David Fincher.
Here’s how I watch films these days. I check my backlog of recommendations from friends, reviews and long-ignored required university course viewings and pick something from a genre I’m in the mood for. Rather than continue working my way through the list, I start down the rabbit hole of the movie I just finished. Who directed that? Who was that one actress who was really good? What else in this genre was made around this time? Right now, I’m on a David Fincher kick, and today I’ve ended up with the most unFincher Fincher he’s ever Finchered. Say it aloud, try it. Dude’s surname is the verbal equivalent of cocking a handgun. Fffffin-CHer.
Jodie Foster and her daughter Kristen Stewart move into a new house. It has a ‘panic room’, a torture device used by upper-middle-class families to instill claustrophobia in things that didn’t have it before (undomesticated animals, unruly children, unwanted relatives). I guess you could also use it to hide in if your house gets broken into by Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker and R A O U L, but that seems like an entirely secondary usage and doesn’t happen at any point in this thriller movie about a single mother going through a divorce.
Panic Room, especially when compared to Fincher’s ‘bigger’ movies (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club), feels televisual, and that’s very much a good thing. The majority is shot in medium-close up, it all takes place within one house and uses cheap CG (to clever effect, more later). This is actually great because it forces Fincher to be smart with the limited resources he has to play with. As a result, the film feels well-paced, the script is economical, and it balances its (basic) character-building well with moments of tension. Sure, it’s emotionally shallow, and never as atmospherically oppressive as, say, Se7en or Fight Club is, but that’s fine given the material. This is more like Home Alone for people who think they should still be allowed to shoot trespassers.
The three burglars are the big draw here. Forest Whitaker and Jared Leto do well as the sympathetic thief and impatient drug addict (respectively obviously – but imagining reversing those roles is a fun mental game), but I reckon the star is ‘Raoul’. Raoul is played by Dwight Yoakam, who, in hilarious contrast, is an accomplished country singer-songwriter. He’s the only one wearing a mask and the other two seem to know relatively little about him (he’s introduced with the simple but threatening exchange ‘Who are you?’ / ‘I’m Raoul.’) First, he’s calm and framed in positions of authority – off to one side, unmoving, almost monolithic. Next, he’s as deranged as a wounded animal. The other two are criminals, but Raoul is just a malevolent force. The three have a good dynamic, and give Raoul someone other than the protagonists to argue with, threaten, and generally be unpleasant to. It’s that one Three Stooges joint where Curly finally tires of Moe and shoots him in the head.
Early in the film, the camera pulls back from Julia Roberts sleeping on a bed, but it moves at a slightly unnatural pace. The effect is like a flyover around a videogame level. It trips something in your brain; suddenly you realise you’ve seamlessly gone from looking at real objects to computer-generated ones. Is that staircase real, or CGI? That doorknob is definitely CGI, but what about the rest of the door? This is the cinematographic equivalent of the uncanny valley. It makes you feel uneasy in the way certain shop mannequins can. Not only does it show multiple events simultaneously without the need to resort to awkward edits, but it lets you ‘read’ the layout of the house and ratchets up the tension. You always know, in real physical distance, exactly how proximate protagonists and antagonists are.
Further: Ian Buchanan plays a realtor at the start of the movie, but I couldn’t place him at the time. He was doling out such a good turn of his heady blend of condescending, patronising smugness that I could feel one of my intestines fail under the strain. When the credits rolled, I remembered that he was Dick Tremayne, objectively the worst Twin Peaks character, and shat myself.
In conclusion – Panic Room is a palate-cleanser film – a one-set, one-premise type-deal. If you want a thriller to eat some popcorn with, it does the job. If you want a decent source to analyse for an essay on the (dis)empowerment of female protagonists, it does the job. I doubt it’s anyone’s favourite movie, but it’s also obvious no-one involved set out to make it that, either. ‘Serviceable’ is the most efficient word I can think of, but that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise. I LIKED IT AND YOU SHOULD WATCH IT IF YOU’RE BORED BUT YOU PROBABLY WON’T REMEMBER IT AS YOU RECOUNT THE BLESSINGS OF THIS LIFE AS YOU BREATHE YOUR LAST IN A HOSPITAL BED