The filmography of David Fincher is downright strange if you look at it long enough. Sort of when you look at a common word closer than usual and it freaks you out. He’s made modern day classics such as Fight Club and Seven, but sitting right next to them is Alien 3 and the Oscar baiting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (13 Nominations, 3 Wins). I like both movies just fine, but it kind of blows my mind that this revolutionary director could have made an inoffensive humble film about a man who ages backwards, on top of the third instalment in the Alien series (which I do like more than most). Regardless of how ground-breaking his films are they are all pretty damn solid. But there was one that insinuated being an even bigger black sheep than the rest. Fincher’s 2002 film Panic Room.
For a long time this was the only David Fincher film that I had never seen, and for an even longer time I had no idea that he had directed it. When I was 11 or 12 I have a random memory of sitting in the back of my Dad’s car when a blockbuster advert came on the radio plugging the new DVD releases. One of these was Panic Room, I don’t remember anything that was said about the film other than a brief plot outline and actors names that meant nothing (they probably said “thrilling” too much also), but for some reason this memory has stuck with me. My memory tends to work like that with me having recollections of some of the most mundane things. This distinctive memory has always given me a heightened interest in the film. I didn’t beg my parents for it or anything, and it wasn’t constantly at the forefront of my mind but I definitely maintained a curiosity about it.
Not until my interest in film increased did I finally see it. It wasn’t until I saw Zodiac that I took notice of exactly who David Fincher was, I had seen Fight Club and Seven, feeling like I knew what points they were trying to make under the surface. But I never considered them being made by the same person, the whole concept of an Auteur never really crossed my mind until I was maybe 15 and discovered Martin Scorsese. So here I was looking at Fincher’s filmography and there was Panic Room, and again I didn’t rush to watch it. Mainly because I had never actually heard a good thing about it and my only knowledge on it was based on some half recalled mundane occurrence. Then I saw The Social Network and that being as good as its dialog is fast I delved into all things David Fincher once again and finally watched it.
It’s a thriller through and through, even resembling an indie film with b-movie leanings. Strange when considering it had as reported budget of 48 Million Dollars. There are definitely minimalist elements which give the film an interesting style when viewed solely as a David Fincher film. It is set almost entirely in the same New York Residence, with only the film’s opening and ending showing different locations. Fight Club went just about everywhere, with Tyler Durden’s jet setting ways being a major part of the plot. This has 1 major location where 99% of the story takes place. You almost get the impression that Fincher wanted a break after Fight Club and chose a project where he could stay in the same place for a few months (as Fight Club precedes Panic room in his Filmography). Fincher gets to show his directorial talents in a completely new way. Just how can you make a film visually interesting when the same interiors are in almost every shot? He easily answers this. He mixes several styles giving the film a unique edge. Impossible camera movements, that can only be digital, see it flying through walls, floors and objects, anything really, physical space is treated as a non-obstacle. The long take that follows the criminal’s ascent up the exterior of the building from the interior is a fantastic watch. Mixed with this style is a more standard directorial approach that captures the criminal’s intense relationship with one another, and finally realist footage from the houses security system viewed from within the panic room.
Oh yeah, the panic room. While seeing past my directorial love affair with David Fincher is hard this film actually does have a story. Recent divorcee Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have just moved into a big ass New York residence. Prior to this a scene sees them being shown around and told about the previous owner, a paranoid millionaire. His paranoia resulted in him installing a panic room (actually called safe rooms but that doesn’t make for a catchy title). On their first night in their new residence a trio of criminals break in. They are: grandson of the previous owner Junior (Jared Leto), a security company employee Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and unpredictable third party Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). This three are there to steal an ever changing amount of money (due to Junior’s ever changing honesty) from the panic room. They of course discover the sleeping Altman’s and decide to continue regardless, but they alert the two who run to safety and lock themselves in the panic room. They want what’s in that room and construct various attempts to expel them from the room. The remainder of the film sees a cat and mouse like story between the girls and the criminals, with the sides changing on occasion.
The story isn’t amazingly original but it has enough twists and turns to maintain interest. It initially appears to run the risk of viewers feeling frustrated at the actions the characters are taking, but it is refreshing to see characters that aren’t flawed by their own stupidity. They act how you would expect them to in these extraordinary situations. They aren’t the stupid victims that you would find in a generic slasher film, they act with a form of intelligence on both sides of the moral spectrum. This is aided by the films strong acting talents. Foster exhibits both a distraught mother and a quick thinking survivalist ultimately handing in a solid performance. You genuinely believe that a middle aged mother is a worthy opponent for an armed criminal. Her on screen daughter Kristen Stewart plays the exact level of fear and boldness that the story requires, it’s in line with her age rather than her being inexplicable wise beyond her year as many child actors are. The criminals crumbling unity is rightfully shown as inevitable. Leto embodies pure greed, Yoakam pure psychosis and Whitaker pure reluctance but need. Their mistrust makes their ability to be felled and overcome believable.
Despite my history with the film I never really expected it to be up to much, so my expectations were unaffected by my long standing curiosity in it. I went in neutral and was surprised. It’s your standard Hollywood thriller film brought above average by its brilliant direction, nowhere near his finest work but possessing that undeniable touch of quality that every David Fincher film seems to have.