Director: David Fincher (USA). Year of Release: 2002
Manhattan, the expensive part near the park. Meg (Jodie Foster) is dragging her sullen teenage daughter to another house visit. She’s in the process of a divorce settlement and part of the deal is that her rich ex-husband pharmacist will pay for wherever she chooses to live. So, this 4-storey 4,200 square feet monstrosity will do for her. As she’s been shown round she discovers a panic room where she can hide behind 3 feet of steel. I wonder if that will come in useful any time?
Sure enough, on the first night in the new house, there’s a break in. The three intruders are a strange group indeed. Did you think Jared Leto was overacting in The House of Gucci? Well, of course you did – that was a one-in-a-lifetime performance which will never be matched by its sheer awfulness. But as Junior in Panic Room, Leto comes close. Junior is a white man who wears cornrows and seriously overestimates his charisma and leadership qualities.
Nonetheless, he’s the one who’s giving the orders. Doing most of the leg work and thinking is Forest Whitaker as Burnham – a gentle man who’s only doing this because he needs the money for his family. Junior had said that the house will be empty, so Burnham hasn’t even changed out of the work overalls with his name on them. He’s spent over a decade working in security, so knows exactly how to break into a panic room – and when the odds are too much stacked against you.
Third in the party is Raoul – the Third Murderer who was invited by Junior at the last minute, without the knowledge of Burnham who freaks out when he sees that Raoul is carrying a gun. Dwight Yoakam as Raoul offers a noble challenge to Leto in the overacting Olympics, but no-one is going to outdo the Laurence Olivier of terrible acting. Raoul looks scary, and spends the first half of the film in a black ski mask, but compared to Junior he’s almost a sympathetic character.
On one level, the rest of the film is pretty obvious. Meg and daughter Sarah (a precociously good Kristen Stewart) rush into the panic room just in time. When they try to use the direct phone line to the police, they discover that as it’s their first night in the house, Meg hasn’t installed it yet. So they use the intercom that’s in the room first to tell the intruders to take what they want and leave then (under Sarah’s prompting) to get the fuck out of the house.
But there is one problem. The planned robbery is of a safe that is inside the panic room. Which means that the robbers won’t go until Meg and Sarah leave their sanctuary, but now that Raoul is carelessly letting off bullets, that’s not really an option. Meg has a mobile phone in her bedroom, but it would take a perilous journey to retrieve it. And Sarah has type 1 diabetes, and if her blood sugar gets too high she needs a shot of the insulin that she didn’t bring with her in all the rush.
All this provides the basis for an above average thriller. There’s enough talking points, and a couple of set ups which would allow the film enough time to fill up the allotted 2 hours without us ever getting too bored. But director David Fincher has made Panic Room better than this by injecting a sense of pace that starts in the early scenes and never lets up.
As the camera cuts between a blurry-eyed Meg waking up and trying to make sense of the world and the confusion of the men downstairs finding that the house is not empty as expected, the audience is given the privilege of panicking for the characters who don’t yet understand what is going on. The tension is ratcheted up to the top level without us ever thinking that this is unbelievable. We sort of know that Meg will hide at the last minute but don’t know how.
On top of this, Fincher has learned the number 1 requirement of good cinema – never take yourself too seriously. Two scenes in particular spring to mind. Sarah flashes out an SOS call with her torch and Meg asks her where she learned Morse Code. “Oh, Titanic”, is the answer. Later, Meg and the robbers change places and Meg finds a way of storming the panic room. “Why didn’t we think of that?” ask the robbers, just as the audience is asking itself exactly the same question.
There are weak points, of course there are weak points, and not just to do with Leto’s terrible acting. My main gripe is social rather than artistic. The main lesson from the film is that property must prevail and the rich must be protected at all points. Sure, Burnham is presented as the honest criminal, but even he must suffer and be punished. You may say that this is (unfortunately) what the world is like, and you may well be right, but it left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Ultimately, though, watching the film – which somehow I completely missed the first time round, even on video – really increased my respect for director David Fincher. I am generally agnostic about Fincher’s work – the films of his that I know look good, but are often insubstantial. Panic Room defies this judgement. Real thought has been spent to plan plot and structure. And, with some exceptions, the acting is first rate. Finally, an old film that’s worth remembering.