, (David Fincher, 2002) Spoilers abound
Barren empty rooms, not yet lit by table lamps, chandeliers, and nifty art deco lights from trendy Manhattan shops, set the stage while symbolizing the genre stripped bare. The rules of the game are clear. The goal, the boring McGuffin of money indicating its aesthetic unimportance, simply to win. The players each have their weaknesses: love of a daughter, diabetes, unwillingness to kill, single-mindedness, and lack of drive. Each will hold their cards close to the vest. The audience gets to be umpire, with perfect vision of the field, able to focus on each move made. Thus is Fincher's thriller: straight forward, a game played many times before, yet extremely well executed.
By now all of us have seen the trailers and the premise. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) moves herself and her daughter into a ritzy Manhattan "townstone". The previous owner built a fortess of solitude into the master bedroom which become the game's center square. Three theives come to the house: Burnham (Forrest Whitaker) is a security expert who designed the panic room, Junior (Jared Leto, a fine young actor continually making good career choices) is the scorned family member of the previous owner, and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam, delightful as the one true villain) is the merc.
The film is played straight, there isn't any subversion of the thriller, so the success of the film hinges on the players making their moves as expertly as possible while believably faltering due to their given weaknesses. David Koepp's script does a good job with the contestants. Their moves aren't perfect because nobody's ever would be. When a missed opportunity is realized, the slap on the forehead ensues. This could easily be an excuse for lazy writing, but I felt enough smart moves were made to forgive the bad ones as mistakes by the characters.
The most interesting matchup is between Foster and Whitaker. Whitaker is battling his own creation, the panic room, operated by not an expert user but a quick learner in Foster. He is averse to violence, and while he needs the money, you get the sense that ultimately defeating the panic room is his goal and a greater achievement than its creation. Whitaker is thoughtful and smart, a "Gentle Ben" competing for love of the game. So often caper movies will fail to make the defeat of technical security measures interesting because it is portrayed as a casual magical achievement. The "expert" simply works their magic and presto the bank vault is open. Fincher lets the audience in, allowing us to see Whitaker formulate his plan of attack and carry it out. The success or failure of the attack is logical to us because we have seen the details.
While the Whitaker-Foster bout is the heart of the movie, it is also the biggest missed opportunity. His motivations are cloudy. We know he needs the money, but it isn't sufficiently clear why. I wonder what would have been added to the tone of the picture if the prologue had been very different. Rather than a hum drum sequence of the real estate agent showing the gamespace, set up Foster and Whitaker for the match. Allow Whitaker to be more of an anti-hero and the audience will be forced into ambivalence, able to cheer and gasp with each move. It would also add to the climax, when the "good" win and the "bad" get their just desserts.
Maybe the reason I longed for more Whitaker is because Foster is rather hit or miss. Her agony at watching her husband beaten seemed "acted" (the scream was so forced). Though it is partially the script's fault, the claustrophobia angle is thrown in and forgotten, Foster's only attempt at conveying it rather haphazard and maybe indication to the producers they should go elsewhere with the story. Then minutes later she will bring her character to life (ironically enough when the character is acting) as she convinces police that come to the door that nothing is wrong and they should leave her alone. Besides, she has to win on her own.
Darius Khondji's camera work is superb as usual. The action is always well defined. The computer aided zipping through narrow cracks, which many find too showy, I find simply the natural progression of film. The "reality" of the set will dissolve more and more often into the perfectly molded of the digital. I can't offer a good analysis of the lighting and color. I found the film overly dark but I suspect substandard viewing conditions as the theater I went to is notorious for poor screenings (it is the most convenient theater to go to for my friends and one friend who works for the theater chain occasionally takes us all for free). I will have to see it on DVD, which on a high definition screen is hard to beat as far as analyzing composition (sorry big screen purists).
Ultimately, Panic Room
is an entertaining thriller, a fine addition to Fincher's work and becomes the third movie of 2002 on my "list" (with Blade 2
and The Laramie Project