Movies that begin with someone moving into 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 Vietnam war flashbacks afflicting poor William Katt in the cleverly titled House. Everyone knows this drill: a new abode bodes ill.
David Fincher’s Panic Room opens with one such ominous scene, suggesting, of course, that Fincher and company know exactly what tradition they’re mucking with. Taut-faced, carefully appointed divorcee Meg (Jodie Foster) is touring a cavernous, multi-floored mansion on New York’s Upper West Side, accompanied by her sullen, scooter-riding 11-year-old daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). The place is all threatening shadows and hardwood floors that allow for clacking heels, but by far its most portentous aspect is the fact that it has a “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 — and cases of bottled water and fireproof blankets. Apparently, the previous owner, now dead, was worried about “home invasions.”
As Meg and Sarah make their way through the rooms, each gloomier than the one before, 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, an understanding of dread as it might actually have consequences.
Panic Room is all about that sense of privilege. And while it spends a lot of time putting Meg to serious tests of maternal strength and wiliness, it does not suggest that her self-involved license — or that of the inevitable intruders — is at all troublesome. It is also (perhaps more topically, given that it was released to theaters following 9-11), about the loss of a sense of security; Meg and Sarah’s belief that they are safe, even in a large home equipped with steel doors and an elaborate alarm system, is abruptly destroyed, not with a crash or explosion, but with a more insidious and equally dire incursion.
The film must presume its protagonists’ 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 a millionaire ex-husband, Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), who has recently dumped her for a younger woman. 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.
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 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), as well as the quite brilliant Alien 3, where virginal Ripley finally got laid and the creature finally got a point of view, a raucous and seductive one. 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). Complications include the fact that Meg is (momentarily) claustrophobic and that Sarah is diabetic and, I the rush to get in the panic room, left her life-saving kit back in her bedroom.
You know what’s going to happen here. The boys surprise each other but no one else: Raoul is short-tempered, Junior mealy-mouthed (Leto’s uninspired “accent” is key to this characterization), and Burnham a genuinely nice guy with a family to support (apparently, designing upscale security systems doesn’t pay well enough, 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 inattentive, just 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, who worked on Seven, and with whom the director reached what Premiere magazine calls “a stalemate over the film’s visual direction,” and second, the ingenious 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.
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 incredible imagery, rather than a site where characters exist or something memorable might happen (this is quite unlike Seven, for example, where events resonated in a certain corner of the cultural imaginary for years, as in, the huge empty exterior surrounding Mills/Pitt’s desperate query, “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 raises significant questions about the relations between refuge and money — in a world where such relations have turned suddenly, very visibly tenuous — it never challenges that assumption of privilege grounding these relations. Though it does suggest that gender is in play — Junior observes early on that the men might come up with a strategy based on the fact that “She is a woman, women need security” — the action heroine angle trumps the psycho-social investigation. Of course, to repeat, this assumption is built into Panic Room‘s fundamental premise, the primary necessity of the house. And the rich white folks — even if they are girls — have to come out on top.
Still, the release of a David Fincher movie on DVD held out cause for hope. The DVD versions of Seven and Fight Club, in particular, are grand affairs, including smart, interesting commentaries by the director and performers, as well as more gimmicky attractions: on the former, deleted scenes and alternate endings, photo galleries; on the latter, multiple angle ops, “concept art,” and storyboards. In other words, the discs encourage viewers to think about how Fincher and crew conjure their notoriously intricate and provocative art.
Panic Room‘s release on Superbit DVD is less thrilling. It delivers the film, period. That’s not to say that watching the film again, and being able to slow motion and freeze-frame through some of the more remarkable images (say, the camera seeming to track through the coffee pot handle, the moves in and out of rooms and hallways, the stylish cuts between monitors and actual spaces) is not rewarding in and of itself. But, if you’ve been hoping for these elements to be broken down in storyboard or a digital grid, or discussed on the commentary track, you will be disappointed. Maybe there’s another version coming down the road — much as Memento or T2 have come up with Special Deluxe Super-Amazing Collector’s editions after the release of more mundane renderings, so that buffs might indeed “collect” more stuff, and pay more money. Or maybe this is the definitive edition and Fincher, ever forward-looking, has moved on to Mission Impossible 3, contented not to be looking back. In either case, this Panic Room DVD leaves you to figure the moves and angles.