Film

Panic Room (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

In lieu of plot or character, 'Panic Room' offers the house.


Panic Room

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam,Kristen Stewart
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-03-29

Movies that begin with someone moving in to a new house always end badly. What happens in between can range from harrowing to tedious, from the horrific ghosts in The Haunting, The Shining, or The Amityville Horror to the corny Vietnam war flashbacks afflicting poor William Katt in the way too cleverly named House. Yeah, yeah, everyone knows it: a new abode bodes ill.

Panic Room opens with one of these ominous scenes. Taut-faced, carefully appointed Meg (Jodie Foster) is touring a cavernous, multi-floored mansion on New York's Upper West Side, accompanied by her angry-ish, scooter-riding 11-year-old daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). The place is all ominous shadows and hardwood floors, but by far its most ominous aspect is its "panic room," with a thick steel door that slams shut with an alarming thwack, a bank of surveillance monitors -- all shooting from sharp, high angles, of course -- and cases filled with bottled water and fireproof blankets. Apparently, the previous owner, now dead, was worried about "home invasions." But damn, this is grim.

At this point, it's hard not to remember Eddie Murphy's dead-on parody of Amityville: when white folks enter a house and hear a scarily echoing voice telling them to "Get out!" they stay anyway, worried about property rights or moral high ground or some shit. But, Murphy observes, when black folks hear that same big bad voice, they say, "Okay," and get out the door, real quick. It's the difference between a sense of privilege and sense of practicable survival.

Panic Room is all about that sense of privilege, but not in any way that challenges or messes with it. Instead, the film presumes the privilege in order to allow the setting -- which is, as the title suggests, its most critical component. Or, to think about this in Eddie Murphy's terms: Panic Room is a conspicuously white folks movie. To be fair, it's working within a generic framework. As Meg and child are considering this mightily creepy joint, neither seems a bit unnerved, but really, they needn't be -- they are characters built on the expectations of money and whiteness. Meg mentions that the place might be, well, expensive, but, as her real estate agent, Lydia Lynch (Ann Magnuson) snipes, she "can afford it." This is because Meg is getting the house as payback from her cheating dog of an ex-husband, Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), who has recently dumped her for a younger woman (the press kit calls him a "pharmaceuticals" millionaire, whatever that is). Meg is mad enough that she decides to take the house, even though she and Meg both think that panic room is a tad sinister. Jump to the first night in the house, complete with thunder and rain.

Oi. With such a generic point of entry, you might be imagining the worst for Panic Room. At the same time, you might also be hopeful, given that it's directed by David Fincher, who concocted two of the more inventive genre-fucking movies in recent memory, the edgy deconstruction of serial killer flicks, Seven (1997), and the grimly self-righteous (and often exhilarating) assault on buddy films, Fight Club (1999). Shoot, even The Game had its anti-generic moments, most involving Sean Penn's sorties against anything resembling narrative coherence (though exactly what genre is at stake here is a little unclear).

But with Panic Room, scripted by David Koepp, Fincher has his work cut out for him (so to speak). As per any "don't go in the house"-style thriller, the girls will be assailed by a crew of boys, in this case, a trio of home invaders -- security systems expert Burnham (Forest Whitaker), twitty mastermind Junior (Jared Leto), and ski-masked "muscle" Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). So they have a reason to be in the house, they want millions of dollars that are hidden in the titular room. They bust in, Meg hears them, and soon as you can say, "Get out!" Meg and Sarah are locked inside the room and the three guys are locked out -- which means that they'll be spending the next 90 minutes trying to hammer, drill, gas, and unscrew their way in. For a little while, mother and daughter listen to these sounds and watch the monitors in horror (no working phone inside the room, of course). Tensions mount when you discover that Meg is (momentarily) claustrophobic and that Sarah is diabetic and drat! she left her kit back in her bedroom.

You can't help but know what's going to happen here. The boys surprise each other but no one else: Raoul is a short-tempered thug, Junior a mealy-mouthed scum (Leto's uninspired "accent" is key to this characterization), and Burnham a genuinely nice guy with a family to support (apparently, designing security systems doesn't pay so well, and besides, someone has to do the right thing, eventually). The girls are equally predictable: initially mopey and stiff, Meg turns out to be an agile action hero, most excellent at the dramatic slow-motion dash, and handier with a sledgehammer than she could have imagined. Even Sarah, still looking haggard, with eyes dark-circled, following her lack-of-injection ordeal, gets audience-rousingly scrappy with a few leftover needles. And oh yes, a couple of cops who come by are irksomely slow on the uptake -- exactly as you know they will be.

In lieu of plot or character, then, Panic Room offers the house. It's a good house, even a spectacular house. As assembled on screen by director David Fincher and his cinematographers (first Darius Khondji, with whom the director reached what Premiere magazine calls "a stalemate over the film's visual direction," and second, Conrad Hall), along with production designer Arthur Max, the house is simultaneously serene and weird, a nightmare waiting to happen. It's all fractured spaces and graceful tracking shots that take you through walls and floors; at one point the camera takes you through the kitchen, up and over counters, through portals, and through a pot handle, an acrobatic maneuver that is consummately cool.

Even aside from the breakaway architecture, the house around the panic room has a striking visual design, composed of long dark hallways and stairways that pile on top of one another, it's punctuated by grim shadows, doorways that loom in low-angle shots, windows that look out on the rainy street, and all those menacing video cameras in every-which corner. Since Meg and Sarah have only just moved in, there's precious little domestic detail, save for Meg's claw-footed tub (a must-have accessory for all gothic-inclined mansions), a bike and a pizza box in the kitchen, and a soccer ball conveniently located so that it might be kicked loudly down the stairs at a crucial moment. Altogether ooky.

And yet... as beautiful and well used as all this space is, midway through the film, it starts to feel less foreboding than vacant, an occasion for Great Visuals, rather than a location where characters live and where anything might happen, or at least anything that you might remember two days later (this is quite unlike Seven, for example, which events resonated in a certain corner of the cultural imaginary for years, as in, "What's in the box?"). Panic Room's visual organization is surely precise -- you always know where the characters are in relation to the house and each other -- but it overwhelms a more crucial anxiety and dread.

Worse, the film comes round to a very conventional moral neatness that's unusual in a Fincher film. While it surely raises significant questions about the relations between security and money, in a world where such relations have turned suddenly, very visibly tenuous (and granted, the film was made before 9-11), it never pushes hard at the assumption of privilege that grounds these relations. This assumption is built into Panic Room's fundamental premise, the primary necessity of the house. The rich white folks have to come out on top.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.