In the glorious heights of David Fincher’s filmography, one film stands apart. Well, other than Alien 3. Nestled in between the glorious Fight Club and solid Zodiac, is Panic Room, which on the surface may appear like a Fincher film, but don’t be blinded by the grim browns and blacks. Sadly, this is not really Fincher.
Panic Room (2002) is directed by David Fincher and stars Jodie Foster as recently divorced mother Meg Altman, who has recently moved into a new house with young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). However, unbeknownst to her, a secret fortune is hidden in the home’s titular panic room, and three criminals (played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) decide to arrive one stormy night to claim it.
The premise is simple, self-contained, and direct. Hard to screw that up, particularly for a director of Fincher’s calibre. From start to finish its a continual sequence of one tense situation after another, which makes the film good for some cheap thrills, but grows tiresome over the long term. This isn’t a bad thriller, just… acceptable. Its kind of like a small-town rollercoaster. Fun while you’re on it, but hardly going to leave an impression.
And also like a small rollercoaster, Panic Room tends to squeak and struggle on the bends quite frequently. While the script is simple, it suffers from some really poor writing and attempts at humour. Bad idea. Having humour in a grim thriller is risky alone, but having it fail is even more of a sin.Unlike most of Fincher’s other work, Panic Room is not particularly intelligent, or inventive, or even memorable. But that being said, it never tries to be. The script is purely a solid home invasion story. Its not unique because it isn’t trying to be. Just like that damn small-town rollercoaster.
The one thing that elevates this film from a popcorn gobbling B-movie is saviour David Fincher. Far and beyond the best part of Panic Room is his production design and camerawork. The house is constantly grim and dreary, as if designed by Wes Craven on a bad day, and the camera zips around (helped along by some technical wizardry) with the same panic as Foster herself.
Speaking of Foster, another positive on the film’s side is the cast. Well, most of it. Foster is easy to empathise with as the determined resourceful divorcee. Kristen Stewart (who I will admit was hard to get past thanks to bloody Twilight) is perfectly fine as well but nothing spectacular. As for the crooks, well that’s when it falls apart. While Whitaker is interesting enough as the reluctant criminal Burnham, Leto and Woakam’s characters aren’t great. I cannot overstate how ridiculously annoying I found Leto in Panic Room. He’s written as a moron trying to act tough, and he almost became a deal-breaker his character was so grating. Woakam fares a little better as he’s the designated sadist (need one in every gang!), which fits well with the plot but doesn’t given him much dimension. He’s cruel and driven, but that’s about it.
I think Fincher himself sums up this film the best. While researching the movie, I came across an interesting quote of his on the DVD commentary when he described Panic Room as “a really good B-movie”. Its lacking the intrigue and intelligence of Fincher’s other films, but for a solid set of thrills and good production design, Panic Room is still an acceptable way to waste 2 hours. But like going on that small, creaky roller-coaster, I won’t be paying for a second experience.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Recommended