starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto
screenplay by David Koepp
directed by David Fincher
by Walter Chaw Panic Room has a fancy premise stretched to and past the breaking point. It was a production beset by problems including the loss of star Nicole Kidman to an injury sustained during Moulin Rouge!, the departure of director of photography (DP) Darius Khondji, and a storyboard plan so devilishly complex that the film will probably be best remembered as a breakthrough in how burgeoning technologies can inform the DP's craft. The behind-the-scenes strain manifests itself in the nervous distractedness of the narrative and glaring and irritating plausibility gaps; the undeniably cool images (and Howard Shore's amazing score) only serve to illuminate the emptiness at Panic Room's core.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into a swank four-story, four-thousand-square-foot "townstone" in New York's ritzy Central Park West that features the titular "panic room," a wholly self-contained bunker located as a 'safe room' in the belly of the house. All cavernous interiors, hardwood floors, and telescoping stairwells, Panic Room's production design (by Ridley Scott and Fincher's main designer Arthur Max) resembles Mel Bourne's work on The Fisher King: sharp angles, looming shadows, and a fascinating mix between avant-garde and industrial. All of this focus on camera work and production design is important as, save for a brief prologue and a briefer epilogue, Panic Room takes place entirely in the townstone.
Underscoring the insular nature--gimmick?--of the piece, Fincher's opening credit sequence reflects an architectural vision that is not only startling but also recalls the canted lines opening Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the fetishistic iconography found in the same. Comparisons to Hitchcock, however, discounting a few familiar-seeming establishing images (a pair of discarded glasses scream "winking homage") and a few swooping crane shots (not to mention the closed-room thriller stunt/trope of Rope), are cosmetic at best. Fincher at his strongest holds a cruel mirror to the trials of contemporaneous society. Alien3 is read with most profit as a plague journal of the AIDS epidemic; The Game as a commentary on how material possessions define reality; Se7en as the decline of morality in the face of society's shocking piousness; and Fight Club as (again) the question of identity in a capitalist wonderland.
What Fincher does not do well is explore Hitchcock's psychosexual issues whilst employing the voyeuristic implication of the camera's murderous gaze. This would be beside the point had not Panic Room evidently aspired to be a parable of rape through the violation of a feminine sanctuary--something along the lines of Marnie perhaps, or more accurately of the Manderly arc of Rebecca--and an indictment of the audience's perverse anticipation of the character's suffering. Not even the expansion of Psycho's peephole into a bank of video monitors can convince of Panic Room's purported heritage.
Meg and Sarah's new home is bought with a recent divorce from a high-powered pharmaceuticals entrepreneur (Patrick Bauchau). On mother and daughter's first night there, a trio of burglars bypass the hi-tech security system in search of a treasure hidden somewhere in the home by the reclusive previous owner. Led by high-strung Junior (Jared Leto), the villains boil down to stock thriller caricatures: doomed Junior, the murderous psycho Raoul (a typecast Dwight Yoakum), and sympathetic thug with a heart of gold Burnham (Forest Whitaker). The question is posed as to why the trio would choose to break into the home after a new tenant has already taken root and not before, but it's quickly dismissed as a lamentable mistake (as are later "mistakes" like a twice-forgotten cell phone, the handling of a couple of 9-1-1 calls that portray the NYPD as a bunch of idiots, the forgetting of the "self-contained air circulation unit" of the panic room, and the transformation of Raoul into some kind of inexorable slasher killer). Because a screenplay recognizes its own shortcomings through self-deprecating dialogue does not solve the problems of said screenplay.
The base question of how tension can be sustained for two hours from two people in an impregnable room evading a home invasion is answered by Panic Room, but never satisfactorily. Its plot twists don't flow from the natural progression of events: a collection of contrivances upon strained contrivances. Enough so that David Fincher and (replacement cinematographer) Conrad W. Hall's extraordinary images, digitally pre-visualized tracking shots (by techies Pixel Liberation Front ("PLF")), and low-light shots begin to feel more like desperate diversionary tactics meant to distract from Panic Room's problems. It is an unspeakably beautiful film that, like Michael Mann's similarly grey and oddly detached Ali, can't seem to find itself in the middle of its dazzling cinematic expertise.
Not helping Panic Room is an ineffective and unsympathetic performance by Foster (which carries over into the seriously underdeveloped relationship between Meg and Sarah) and closing act violence that is spoiled by its gratuitousness. The star of the film is Fincher's vision: Hall's radical "unlit" lighting scheme (achieved through low-contrast stock, a reset of Hall's light meters to 640 ASA to register images in the darkness, and Kino Flos as primary light sources) and its impossible camera movements aided by digital imaging technology, as well as Fincher's remarkable ability to portray violence with crushing weight and impact. Panic Room is a film for students of photography and design: as a thriller it lacks punch, as a neo-Hitchcock, it lacks theme, and as an addition to Fincher's collection of societal exposés, it marks the first real disappointment of the blossoming auteur's career.