USA 2002 : David Fincher : 112 mins
A ‘panic room’ – also known, less alarmingly, as a ‘safe room’ – is, we’re told, a fortified space hidden within expensive houses and apartments, into which inhabitants can retreat in the event of ‘home invasion.’ Which is exactly what happens on the night wealthy divorcee Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) moves into her newly-bought Manhattan mansion with teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). Problem one: Meg forgot to connect the panic room’s private, dedicated telephone line, so they can’t summon help. Problem two: Sarah has diabetes, and in the rush to flee into the panic room she left her medication behind in her bedroom. Problem three: the stash of loot sought by the crooks (Forrest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam) is somewhere inside the panic room. The resulting stalemate rapidly turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse as the each side desperately tries to outwit the other.
Panic Room is all about manipulation – it’s appropriate that, among the closing credits, several puppeteers are mentioned, harking back to the fate of the hapless Van Orton in Fincher’s masterpiece The Game, and also that movie’s key poster image. Along with scriptwriter David Koepp, he manipulates the characters like board-game pieces, in and out of the panic room in various combinations. The characters are also constantly manipulating each other – the screenplay is less a matter of dialogue, more a list of shouted instructions as the balance of power see-saws between the two opposing camps, and between the three bickering thieves. People are constantly having to ‘play’ roles – Meg is forced to ‘act normal’ when a couple of cops come snooping around. “Just make it look good,” snaps one of the crooks to an accomplice, beating up Meg’s husband in front of the CCTV lens. It’s no accident that Meg Altman‘s best friend is called Lydia Lynch (their namesakes cosily sat together when nominated at this year’s Oscars) or that Foster, Whitaker and Yoakam have all directed features of their own.
The audience is likewise under no less severe manipulation, except of a more pleasurable kind – this is a thunderously enjoyable, old-school thriller which, like the panic room itself, is no less effective for being somewhat clankingly mechanical. Though there’s a surprising amount of humour in what’s essentially downbeat subject matter – motormouth Leto mainly functions as comic relief – Fincher certainly knows how to amp up the tension when required, pulling off one particularly stunning sequence when Meg makes a rapid dash out of the room to grab her cell-phone. It’s a masterclass in the directorial control of sound and vision, played out in achingly slow-motion to a soundtrack that’s a symphony of distorted music and sound-effects.
Fincher’s virtuoso technique is all part of the fun – he’s such an outrageous showoff with his camera there’s no choice but to giggle in appreciation, right from the opening titles to the gothic, Stephen King-ish excesses of the extended finale. Throughout, we glide impossibly through staircase bannisters, on a staircase, down into the kitchen to thread the handle of a coffee-pot and zoom a door-lock – casual wonders of cutting-edge CGI. There’s no obstacle to Fincher’s prowling gaze, sliding with equal ease through walls and floors, concrete and steel (with an amusingly different soundtrack ‘vwum’ effect for each) – mocking the characters, whose attempts to do likewise with sledgehammers prove laughably futile.
Though Foster’s Meg ‘carries’ the picture (despite her being a late replacement for Nicole Kidman, this is a very Fosterish kind of role: resourceful, razor-sharp, ferociously independent, Manhattanite) this isn’t really an actors’ film at all – it’s more like a series of ingenious exercises for its director and scriptwriter, each of them trying to outsmart the other in the hope that some kind of ‘ultimate thriller’ will result.
Because, like Fincher, Koepp also delights in creating obstacles which he then nimbly negotiates – the screenplay is essentially a variant on the ‘locked room’ puzzles which writers would set themselves back in the golden age of detective fiction. Though he does forget about the claustrophobia that afflicts Meg only in the very early scenes (low-budget British thriller The Hole explored this angle much more extensively.) And couldn’t he have come up with something slightly less corny than Sarah’s oh-so-convenient diabetes? Or perhaps the corniness is the point – this is a disarmingly post-modern enterprise, and the characters are always referring to movies and TV as for inspiration – Sarah’s morse code from Titanic and later, when one of the crooks is about to inject her with vital insulin, he warns “all I know ’bout this is what I seen on TV.” Watching Sarah come up with ingenious ploys and counterploys – especially the show-stopping moment when she deals with an influx of gas – it’s hard to avoid making a mental notes, in the unlikely event we ever find ourselves in similarly dire, entertaining straits.
29th April 2002
(seen 11th April, Tuschinski Amsterdam; 29th April, UGC Middlesbrough)
by Neil Young