Directed By David Fincher
By: Eric Greenwood
On the surface David Fincher's Panic Room is typical Hollywood fare compared to the noir-ish, ultra-violence of his polemical last film, Fight Club. In almost any other director's hands, Panic Room would be an unwatchable catastrophe, but Fincher's showy directing style, which employs the camera as an eerily omniscient narrator, drags the conventional story across a bed of nails, giving the film jagged edges that aren't present in the script. However, even with Fincher's unorthodox approach, Panic Room suffers from such predictability and common blandness that not even Jodie Foster can save it. And she can cry on cue!
Foster plays Meg Altman- an extremely privileged, recent divorcee with a rebellious daughter, Sara, (you can tell by her Sid Vicious T-shirt and "androgynous" hairstyle that she's "hardcore"), seeking a new home in Manhattan's upper West Side. They settle on absurdly over-sized brownstone once inhabited by a wealthy Howard Hughes-type. Whilst on a tour of the home, Foster's ever-so shrewd character (it's the glasses, man) notices that one of the rooms isn't the proper size. (Is she a former contractor? Has she been hanging out with Miss Cleo? How on earth does she pick up on this?) The realtor acts like she's a genius for noticing with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard, fey British accent, and he proceeds to take her into the "Panic Room." It's a concrete slab encased in three inches of steel with its own phone line and wall of video monitors. How convenient.
Of course, Foster's character has problems with enclosed spaces ("open the door please; open the door!"), so immediately we know this will come back to haunt her. The cheesiness of the set up borders on hilarity, but I just held tight, knowing it had to get better. It did almost immediately. As bad luck would have it, on Meg and Sara's first night in the new house, three goons decide to break in. Jared Leto (the guy that got his face horribly disfigured in Fight Club. Not ringing a bell? He was the star of that movie about the runner that no one saw…Prefontaine or something? Used to date Cameron Diaz….still no clue? Oh, I've got it. He was Jordan on My So-Called Life.) sports cornrows and serves as the film's comic foil. Forrest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam round out the bad guys as the burglar with a conscience and the inhuman prick, respectively.
Within minutes Meg and Sara are stuck in the Panic Room, which just happens to be the only room in the four-story brownstone that the burglars want to get into, of course. Vexing plot line, this one. At first the burglars seem incompetent to the point of buffoonery, but even clowns can be dangerous with the right tools- you know, like guns and propane. The initial exchange between the burglars and the trapped ladies is mildly amusing: Meg (to the bad guys through the intercom): "Get out of my house!" Sara (to her mom): "say 'fuck.'" Meg (through the intercom again): "Fuck." Fincher toys with us by making us feel comfortable enough to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but it doesn't last long. Within minutes the comedy turns into violence and then more violence, which is exactly what I paid for. Ok, so technically I didn't pay for it (I had a refund pass), but you get my point.
Even though you know what is going to happen, Fincher does his damndest to keep you guessing. Violence plus killing always equals good times. Every thriller director worth a shit knows this, and Fincher stays true to the game. He's limited by what's on the paper, but he tries to rise above such trivial constraints. By only half-succeeding, he's produced a pretty good thriller by Hollywood standards, which is code for coasting for everyone else. It's forgettable fluff- a Friday night date movie, for sure, but neither Fincher's nor Foster's careers will be affected one way or the other.