The year was 2002. During this time, everyone was still adjusting to a post-9/11 world. Safety and security were the buzzwords of the day, and war was in the beginning stages of a struggle that would last well over a decade in an ever-changing landscape. Although David Fincher’s fifth feature film has nothing to do with terrorism, Panic Room came at the perfect time to accompany the fear and paranoia that swept through America in this fragile moment in history.
Now obviously this is a very loose association. There isn’t much of a comparison between acts of terrorism that claimed the lives of several thousand people and a Hitchcock inspired thriller. The observation is much simpler than that; we must think back to the climate of the times. Getting on airplanes was a nightmarish thought. Scoping out others who looked “suspicious” was a norm. The feeling of danger was more apparent than ever. Essentially, being scared of the “bad” guys was a recurring theme in the lives of many people soon after 9/11. In retrospect, I think that matters to the patrons of this film upon its initial release. Maybe I’m totally off my rocker. Maybe this makes no sense. But maybe, just maybe, if one was sitting in a New York City theater in 2002 watching this film, one might have thought about how being locked in a panic room served as a great analogy for what was happening outside of those four walls.
As for the film itself, David Fincher wasn’t working with this in mind. The David Koepp penned script was inspired by news reports about panic rooms, and the themes of the movie aren’t related (It’s just fun writing harebrained think-pieces). Heck, the film was done shooting well before the aforementioned tragedy. It’s just interesting to postulate how separate things can manage to cross wavelengths from time to time.
The plot here is simple enough. A recently divorced woman and her daughter (Jodie Foster & Kristen Stewart) move into a new Manhattan pad with a panic room that ends up acting as a source of danger, instead of a place for protection. It doesn’t take long for the film to kickoff the inevitable cat-and-mouse game between the new tenants and their would be burglars. Before that, we’re given a tour of the house by the real estate agent as a way to set the stage for the upcoming showdown.
Fincher is in typical form here. This is a director that loves playing with the camera, giving us shots that we associate with his distinct style. With Panic Room, we see a panning camera give us a continuos perspective of the break-in from inside the house. We see – with the help of special effects – the view go from outside to inside through a keyhole. We see a zoomed-in view of the opening of a combination lock. We see a flashlight trick from across the street that looks like something out of Rear Window. For better or for worse, Fincher uses these little tricks as an attempt to add to the atmosphere. His best use of trickery is early on when he shows Foster sleeping in bed, only to move the screen vertically to see a blurred out assailant standing behind her in the doorway. It’s an effective tool that adds intensity to a plot sticking to the basics.
The mood set with the camera and dreary coloring is what we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker. Even with all his maneuvers, the film would drown if not for the performances. It’s the actors that keep things afloat. The suspense is sold through them, not from Fincher getting cute with the camera. Jodie Foster, in particular, dazzles as a mother hellbent on protecting her daughter from harm. There’s a moment in the film when the camera closes in on her stunningly beautiful blue eyes, giving us a glimpse of the true terror of a mother not knowing if she’ll be able to protect her child. Accordingly, Kristen Stewart’s turn as the young daughter is her best showing to date. Despite a permanent “angsty teen syndrome” in her recent acting career, Stewart appropriately works in the unruliness of a teen, with the real anxiety of a terrified child. Together, they create an almost claustrophobic sense of tension, as the majority of their screen-time is in a high-tech closet.
The rest of the cast is filled out by Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto. They combine as a crime trio that resembles trying to fit the square peg in a round hole. Leto is the bumbling one that has the information, but is too incompetent to be useful. Yoakam is the muscle that rather shoot first and ask questions later. Whitaker is the man with the expertise. Together, they bicker and stumble their way through a game of trying to get in the panic room. Out of the three, Whitaker provides depth for the antagonists, giving us something more than just two dimensional posturing. With an impending child custody hearing, he succumbs to the temptation of making a large sum of money. He accepts the job with the understanding no one will get hurt, but this is a Fincher film. At the end, it’s the kind of performance that makes you hope it all works out for him.
Ultimately, Panic Room works because Foster and Whitaker partake in an entertaining back-and-forth chess match that’s fun to watch. Like many thrillers, a lot of stupid things happen, including quite a few contrived situations and outcomes. Although those things can be grating, it doesn’t stop this from being a good – albeit not great – film. There’s a genuine tension present, even if it falls off for stretches of time. Fincher keeps everything simple, never reaching out too far beyond its basic premise.
The juxtaposition of 9/11 with this 2002 film is intriguing to think about, but nothing more than a secondary observation. This genre film has its own merits worth exploring.