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.