R.C.'s Review of Panic Room
The last thing I was told about this movie was to spare myself and not watch it. I took this with a pinch of salt large enough it fit my hand--after all, this is the work of David Fincher, operating on a script from David Koepp. And yes, Koepp wrote the clumsy script for The Lost World, but he also wrote the one for the original Jurassic Park and wrote and directed an adaptation of Richard Matheson's A Stir of Echoes. I'm actually not sure what it says one way or the other, but the previews included on the DVD are for Taxi Driver, Close Encounters, Midnight Express, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Strangelove. I've got to say--what a weird set of movies to pair this with--though good ones.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are looking for a new home in the midst of Meg's divorce from her husband Stephen (Patrick Bauchau). They are introduced to a four floor home in Manhattan with hardwood floors, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a working elevator, and even a yard--certainly a rarity in Manhattan. Of course, it also has a panic room: multiple inches of steel surround the entire room, which has its own ventilation, monitors linked to cameras throughout the house, its own land phoneline, and an automated steel door that uses hydraulics and motion sensors for security in rapid closure as well as protection from closing when it oughtn't. As they settle in for their first night, a man begins to peruse the front windows and door of the home, checking each and every door and window until settling on an entrance in the roof. He comes in down a ladder there, and begins to move through the house. When he finds Sarah sleeping, there's shock on his face. He moves more quietly, and begins to check each room as he goes, and later finds Meg. After this, he moves back to the door we first saw him at, and he lets in two more men: Junior (Jared Leto) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). They argue quietly but angry about the fact that there are people present, with the first man, Burnham (Forest Whitaker) insisting that they cancel their plans, but being talked down by Junior--who has brought Raoul without telling Burnham. The promise of $3 million keeps them interested, but the chance witnessing of their presence on the safe room monitors leads Meg to run for Sarah and bring her into the safe room. Unfortunately, the money the men are after is in that safe room, and they have to figure out now how to get the Altmans out.
In the pantheon of respected directors, Fincher is closest to Kubrick, if anything--though he very definitely covers a different kind of territory. Both, though, treat (or, in Kubrick's case, treated) film as a craft. There's rarely any moment in the works of either that feels overly spontaneous or unplanned. It's a kind of art that resembles bland construction in description, but in practice tends to be breathtaking visually: it's not about the fact that the visuals are accurate or clean, it's that they all work in the correct order and spaces. It's the beauty of expert clockwork instead of emotive sculpting. It's a method, and it's the kind that is tight and suspends disbelief if you aren't paying attention, but approaches jaw-dropping when carefully examined. There are some absolutely amazing shots throughout the movie, but none go to the trouble to announce themselves or insist on acknowledgment of their presence. The house is believably placed in Manhattan, but is actually a complicated, fully constructed set. It has the aged feeling of an established building, but the freedom of a constructed set. This isn't one of those movies where "the house is a character", but there's a certain feeling it promotes in spite of that. Space is the order of the day in all moments outside the panic room, space above and around everything--and the feeling of a kind of cold, alien age to the house that keeps it very separate from the family that has only just moved into it. It's helped, of course, by the fact that their recent move means they have not yet fully unpacked and decorated it. A lot of the motion shots imply a passive, impartial observer--unnoticed, yet still almost an sentient entity. It knows what's going on but has no investment in it whatsoever: when Burnham walks to Meg's room and into the doorway, the camera turns to frame him just behind Meg's head, unnoticed and never a focal point. It is actually the "character" that shows us Meg going to sleep and moves into Burnham's original entrance into the house.
One of the most interesting factors is that the attitudes of both the men breaking in and the women in the panic room leave us without any particular feeling of threat--there's a real menace in Howard Shore's score, a serious darkness, but Junior's goofy cornrows (which, knowing Leto's way of dealing with his appearance and hair, especially as vocalist for Thirty Seconds to Mars, where a movie doesn't require him to look any certain way, might have been his idea) and the interactions of the three men leave us not overly concerned for the actual safety of Meg and Sarah. Burnham is insistent that no one be harmed, Junior is a terrible criminal who makes assumptions and is determined to prove his control. Raoul is a mystery, but comes off as someone trying harder to be a badass than his history might actually bear out. Meg and Sarah have a moment when they decide to use the intercom to scare the men off that keeps us similarly relaxed. But when an idea to force them out of the panic room begins to go wrong, Raoul becomes something less of a question mark, and things rapidly slide into actual tension, concern, and fear. The shift of control and power, the continued goofs of Junior and the visible compassion of Burnham.
This isn't an utterly unique plot, but few things are. You're certainly left thinking of Wait Until Dark if you've ever seen it, but this is a quality set of actors we're working with all around--Whitaker is a personal favourite, Jared carries a strong history as well as the charisma that lets him front a band--interestingly shared by solo country artist Yoakam, Foster has no need to defend or explain her credibility, and Stewart turns in a solid performance as the vaguely conflicted, slightly sullen, but otherwise reasonable teenaged girl. There's no stretch into absolute clichés, even if the compassionate criminal is not an overly new idea either. The end result is, as is usually the case (always, in my current experience) with Fincher, a tight and engaging film. It's not the best movie, nor is it his best--probably not near the top at all. Still, it comes together exactly as you can only imagine it was intended to, being a thriller based heavily on suspense. There was one moment featuring Andrew Kevin Walker (author of the Se7en screenplay) in a cameo that was relatively predictable--but, in a sense, this wasn't surprising, as it relied on something that you would not as readily expect from the average person, even if some of the characters do--or at least hope for it.