Panic Room (2002)

2011 #16b
David Fincher | 107 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Panic RoomPanic Room stands out as (arguably) Fincher’s most atypical film. Whereas his others are all epic, in one way or another, this is the exact opposite. It’s very contained, virtually the entire running time spent on one night in one house, alleviated only by brief outside bookends and a guided tour of the house at the start. Fortunately, it’s still an outstanding little thriller.

For a start, it’s still clearly a Fincher film (much more so than The Game) thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots. The best known starts with Jodie Foster in bed at the top of the house, before plummeting down several storeys to find the burglars arriving outside, then following them around the house (on the inside) as they try to find a way in (from the outside. Obviously.), Shh!all the way squeezing the camera through banisters, coffee pots, and other assorted obstacles. There are several such shots, the majority early on (though not exclusively — witness the Hitchcockian transparent floor, for instance). This is presumably to help enliven the relatively slow build-up; later, the story’s inherent tension largely takes over.

That said, the story gets going quite quickly, and never drops the ball in the way such contained movies usually do. Even entertaining examples, such as Exam, tend to wind up with moments where you can feel the filmmakers stalling for time; Panic Room has no such scenes. As well as staving off audience boredom, it keeps the film tight, the action constantly pushing forward.

And talking of action, no review of Panic Room is complete without mentioning the slow-motion sequence. Other action scenes in the film are Burglars threeperfectly well staged and suitably tense or exciting as required, but Foster’s slow-mo dash for her mobile, and back into the panic room as the three burglars come pounding up the stairs, is one of those sequences that transcends the film it’s in to become a stand-out example of the form. Any skilled action director could have produced a good sequence at full-speed from that setup, but by switching to slow-motion Fincher stretches out the tension like an elastic band ready to snap, putting us on the edge of our collective seat as we urge Foster on through air that seems as thick as treacle.

Similarly, one must mention the title sequence. I like it well enough, but have never understood why it attracts so much fuss and attention. What’s so exceptional about it? Though I must confess to enjoying it more than I used to, which may just be years of being told how good it is.

Good thief, bad thiefOne other particularly interesting element is how we feel about Forest Whitaker’s character. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven or what have you — the thieves are clearly the villains, and two of them are properly villainous, even if they’re also ultimately shown up as amateurish and a bit useless — but Whitaker’s character gains our sympathies; not as a charming rogue (see Ocean’s Eleven again), or in some kind of honour-amongst-crooks way, or even a wrong-place-wrong-time way, but genuinely as a human being. It helps make things a little different, a little more interesting. Especially at the climax, though I won’t spoil why.

Panic Room doesn’t have as much to say as Se7en or Fight Club, or even The Game, and it feels distinctly low-key after the lot of them — indeed, as Fincher seems to have followed it with a series of genuine epics, it’s increasingly the sore thumb in his filmography. Which probably does it a disservice because it’s a superbly made and entertaining thriller. Whereas before I would’ve happily shoved it to the lower end of Fincher’s work, I felt it had greater re-watch value than The Game and I now like it a lot more than I used to.

4 out of 5

Panic Room is on Film4 tonight, Friday 3rd October 2014, at 11pm.

I watched Panic Room as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

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