Director: David Fincher. Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Kristen Stewart, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Patrick Bauchau, Ann Magnuson, Ian Buchanan. Screenplay: David Koepp.
Panic has always suffused the atmosphere of David Fincher's movies. Following his standout success as an MTV director in the late 1980s, Fincher inaugurated his directing career with Alien³, where he stuck those menacing, drooling jaws-within-jaws closer to Sigourney Weaver's (bald) head than either Ridley Scott or James Cameron had dared. The image has remained all but emblematic of his ensuing films, a template for the vile proximity between Evil Incarnate and its flawed, reluctant, but obdurate combatants: think of Se7en's Kevin Spacey in the back seat of a police car, spewing forth his cold-blooded logic to the cops at the wheel; of Michael Douglas in The Game, sprinting just steps ahead of a dogged, lethal peril that may or may not exist; or of Edward Norton, our surrogate in the deranged world of Fight Club, discovering that psychopathy lives much closer to home than we like to think.
Fincher likes to work within closed systemsan outer-space penal colony, a programmatic series of ritual killings, an underground anarchist posseand then reveal the extravagant chaos that presides within those seemingly hermetic environments. He also likes for most of that unveiling to occur within the dark; I doubt whether the electric bill on any of Fincher's lugubrious films has ever exceeded what I pay each month in my four-room apartment. It comes as no surprise, then, that Fincher's latest film, Panic Room, takes place almost exclusively on a single night in a single location with a proscribed cast of characters: Meg and Sarah Altman are a mother and daughter spending their first night in their million-dollar 94th Street brownstone when this castle-keep of a house is invaded by thieves. The well-advertised high concept (Fincher is a fan of those, too) is that the Altmans' home is equipped with a "panic room," a steel-doored bunker off the master bedroom designed both to protect besieged families and to allow them to watch, through an elaborate system of cameras and monitors, the burglary of their own houseauto-voyeurism for the rich and famous.
And so, while these rich, distressed damsels watch their eight TVs, the film audience settles in for a typical Fincherian standoff, a headliner bout between Clarice Starling and Ghost Dog: in her corner, a scrappy, androgynous teenage girl cut directly from young-Jodie cloth, and in his, the headcases from Sling Blade and Requiem for a Dream. When Panic Room begins with some supremely unsettling creditsmonolithic letters fixed to the sides of Manhattan office-buildings, eerily looming over passing pedestrianswe are reminded of what a canny imagination Fincher possesses, how nimbly he can establish an unnerving tone through the barest manipulation of screen convention.
Or do these opening titles disquiet us so effectively because we so intensely want and trust this film to disquiet us? Aside from Fincher's name-brand appeal, I suspect that the reason why Panic Room's premise is so nervily beguiling lies in its open assumption that our homes no longer offer a reliable bastion against the outside world. The present world has long exceeded the anxieties of, say, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, whose characters turned the home into a trench against external threats; by 2002, news reports, world events, pop psychology, and urban legend have combined to assert that the home has already fallen to moral and mortal invaders. In a cinematic context, consider the massive, illuminating differences between J. Lee Thompson's 1962 film Cape Fear, in which Gregory Peck united his brood against Robert Mitchum's assailant, and Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake, where both the plot and the whiplash editing emphasized how embattled a terrain the Bowdens' home already was before Robert De Niro even showed up. Conspicuous consumption also plays a key role in Panic Room, given the pricey ostentation of the Manhattan skyline in the credits and, soon after, of the Altmans' abode. These high-tech spaces only exist to protect homeowners from their own homes; they would not be constructed if the proud but skittish residents didn't think their homes were worth ransacking. A complex current of ideas, then, is already buzzing through Panic Room's setup, all waiting to be exploited. Indeed, the collateral examination of economics and criminality in an urban context is a direct inheritance from 1996's The Trigger Effect, written and directed by Panic Room scribe David Koepp, and even more so from Fincher's own Fight Club, a film whose astonishing ambition and visual sense furnished satisfying compensation for the increasingly crude and disorganized enactment of its ideas.
Panic Room doesn't explode into being the way Fight Club did. Truth be told, the expository sequences, in which Meg buys her house from a conspicuously shifty pair of realtors, are stilted and ill-concealed. One can hardly misunderstand that Koepp's script is marching us through a rote catalogue of the house's nooks and crannies, laying the physical ground for the upcoming battle royale. As Meg, Foster seems uncharacteristically wan, and her parental interactions with young Kristen Stewart, as Sarah, are unconvincing. Night falls, and we learn in a transparent cutaway that Sarah is a diabetic. A short scene of Jodie in a bathtub calls up unwanted memories of What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis' mechanical jolt-producer of Summer 2000.
Somehow, the tedium of these scenes, the sense that the movie is still waiting to begin, are easy to tolerate. The audience still believes that Fincher has more up his sleeve. The ingredients are still present for an electric thriller. When the camera swoops in one grandiose, jerry-rigged tracking shot from Meg's third-floor bedroom into the keyhole of the ground floor's backdoor, we countenance the show-offy contrivance of the device because we hope it is the harbinger of the tenser, bolder film to follow. It is simultaneously, then, the biggest surprise and the hugest disappointment in all of Fincher's canon that the brainy, opulent entertainment we have anticipated never comes calling. Compared to where Panic Room holes itself up, the movie we want is not even in the same neighborhood.
With dutiful economy, Fincher and Koepp need less than thirty minutes to sequester Meg and Sarah within their impenetrable barricade, but hardly more than two scenes transpire before we realize what a dramatic dead-end this concept comprises. Foster and Stewart sit in a greenish, strangely outfitted room: why do they have a fire blanket in a chamber of concrete and steel? The heavies played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and a ski-masked Dwight Yoakam try to get in that room, but their efforts are undermined by round after round of the inert, implausible squabbles that Koepp has scripted for them. The mundane disputes and failed wit that define their conversationsfurther deadened by bland wide-angles and unimaginative countershots between bickering headsmake an essential error of particularizing the drama in a film whose entire punch is conceptual. The thieves' specific motives could not be less interesting or less relevant to the fundamental circumstance of a home's violation. Hitchcock, for one, was always smart enough to abstract the reasons for criminal behavior; when he did provide it, he certainly did better than Koepp's nonsensical mush about child-custody battles and jeopardized inheritances.
Looming over all this narrative blubber is the ultimate structural howler: why doesn't Meg, who can afford to buy an Upper East Side brownstone, vacate the panic room and let them take what they want from it? It is clear that the criminals do not wish to harm her or Sarah; if she believed that they did, I doubt she would invite one of them to administrate Sarah's insulin shots. The most interesting rationale would argue that Meg wants to prove her mettle, that she avoids a truce because she craves a test. But neither the screenplay nor its star bring us close enough to this character for her interior battles to register clearly, much less to privilege them as the catalyzing element for the overall plot. By the one-hour mark, Panic Room has revealed itself to be a repetitive, hollow jack-in-the-box of a movie. Foster stays in her chamber and the villains try to get in; she pops out for a moment and they miss apprehending her by inches. We know all along that Sarah's illness will prompt the women's eventual emergence, but Fincher nonetheless drags us through several of their foiled calls for help and through one uniquely preposterous strategy the criminals devise for flushing them out.
By the last act of the picture, the intriguing dimensions of the premise have evaporated, disbelief has mounted, and the narrative clichés have added up. The only real addition to Panic Room's repertoire is a wholly gratuitous appetite for corporal violence: bludgeonings, dismemberments, point-blank shootings. Fincher exhibits neither the expert spatial resourcefulness of Night of the Living Dead nor the masterful excesses of characterization of Scorsese's Cape Fear: not a single element of Panic Room persuades us that the film has anything to offer us. Another generic sibling, Tarsem Singh's The Cell, was shot down by several critics for its rococo nastiness and visual promiscuity, but that film boasted a grand science-fictional premise whose ethical resonance deepened with each sequence, substantiating and lending import to all of Singh's stylistic reach. By comparison, Fincher's plot and his images seem more restrained, but the utter baselessness of both make them exponentially more lurid.
It is despicable to see a renegade artist like Fincher consume himself within such a tired, deceptively conventional product; it is sad to see the filmmaker who made, in Se7en, a provocative commentary on sadism degenerate in Panic Room into just another sadist with studio funding. I would argue that Alien³, seemingly the most franchise-indebted and certainly the least popular of Fincher's films, actually remains the only one to conclude with the same discipline and fidelity to its themes that it displays in the characteristically bravura first hour. The best thing to be said about Panic Room is that it fails not out of artistic incompetence (as did last autumn's exercise in Guignol, the Hughes Brothers' From Hell) but out of a competence wholly misapplied. Fincher, Foster, and most of their collaborators have performed better in the past and will probably perform better in the future. Indeed, given their pallid execution of tawdry material in Panic Room, it would be difficult for any future project to escape improvement. D