The Films of David Fincher – Panic Room (Film Review)
Panic Room is the first time we see a genuinely intellectually bereft David Fincher, but it won’t be the last, and it probably is no coincidence that it exists hot on the heels of one of Fincher’s least successful films, which ironically will become one of his most popular. Sandwiched between Fight Club and Zodiac, two of Fincher’s best, if not his best, it has the feel of an exhausted director and a conflicted film maker who wants (needs) to invite a larger audience. In Panic Room, Fincher is still attracted to strong themes. The house is a transitional space for Meg (Jodi Foster) and Sarah (Kristen Stewart), over large and painted as a threatening space, just as Fincher did with The Game. In The Game the family home is a threat to Nicholas because it is the scene of his fathers suicide which laid a trajectory Nicholas inevitably follows. In Panic Room, the enormous house is a threat because Meg has left the safety of her marriage and is venturing out of the family home into a house she will need to defend with her androgynous daughter Sarah. Meg is in a feminist transition, Sarah is a new generation of self sufficient female. And yet, Fincher strangely keeps the force of his directorial presence at the surface, resting only on the house as impregnated fortress and the panic room as both a source of safety and vulnerability. Panic Room is a new set of problems for Fincher, different to what had with Alien³, which was the only film that could be counted as a failure prior to Panic Room being made – at least the only one Fincher really considered a failure. It could be that Fight Club just took too much out of him, because we don’t see the surfacing here of a need for commercial appeal, but rather a failed attempt in the stylistic approach that leaves the film soulless.
Panic Room comes out in 2002, right at the start of a new century and it becomes one of several films at the time to use video surveillance as a vehicle for a citizens big brother style of visual oppression over each other. The cameras are static, while Fincher’s camera is the only entity that can move through the house with giant sweeping motions that imply an all-seeing eye. The fixed video surveillance is always seen through the presence of the character watching, and it immediately provokes reaction. It is only when Meg destroys the cameras that she is able to defeat the intruders, and provoke the comment “Why didn’t we think of that”. Yet none of this scope is portrayed with the substance that, for example, the Ikea catalogue house is portrayed in Fight Club. Fincher is able to give the aesthetic sense of all of us living in an Ikea catalogue in Fight Club, cross referencing the square cleanliness of the apartment and the office against the ruinous warmth of Tyler Durdens mansion. While Panic Room stands on its high themes, Fincher never properly establishes a connection between the human creatures who are both trapped and liberated by their video equipment. Meg is distrustful of the equipment immediately, from her claustrophobia (which bizarrely disappears) through to her struggling to program the electronics of the panic room, and subsequently not hooking up the phone line. We never get a sense of an immersion, a connection with the equipment, therefore we never get a sense of it betraying her, as we do with the Ikea houses. Fincher overlaps her “scared housewife” persona with an ineptitude that, although overcome toward the end in triumph, still keeps her at a distance from what could have been the most powerful theme of the film, if Fincher hadn’t shied away from it. Think of Sex Lies and Videotape (made thirteen years earlier) and the way Soderbergh was able to establish a connection between the anxiety surrounding human interaction and the relief of distance created through the surveillance properties of video. Fincher is never able to convince us of a two-edged sword connection between the advantages Meg clearly has because she can see her intruders, and the problems this causes for her.
This is especially highlighted in the first time Meg sees the panic room, and makes a reference to Edgar Allen Poe. This has some significance when later we realise the burglers want to infiltrate the house in order to get to the panic room which sits like a proclamation of what is to come, think of The Raven, but loses power when compared with The Tell Tale Heart, which is obviously the story being referenced. The old man’s “evil eye” is the video surveillance, and the young man’s murder represented in the relationship between Junior (Jarod Leto) and the old man who lived in the house previously (who built the Panic Room) as well as Meg’s emerging feminist. Unlike the Tell Tale Heart, money is the motive, but the image of the vulture like all-seeing eye, coupled with Fincher’s brilliant feel for paranoia, becomes a great idea so poorly represented that the garishness of the conspiracy thriller takes over, and flattens all plotting nuances except for the clichés we revive through the viewer. Much of this is the problem of an uncharacteristically ordinary script by David Koepp who brings poorly conceived, clichéd antagonists into the house. The value of the invaders is left to quality of performance, and Jared Leto is a horribly shrill, hysterical Junior, Dwight Yoakim is an unconvincing symbol of chaotic evil (that flails even too much for chaos) and only Forest Whitaker becomes an interesting foe, and that is mostly because he wisely downplays his heart-of-gold-victim-of-circumstance Burnham rescuing us from that hopeless cliché. Even Jodi Fosters great performance as Meg and Kristen Stewart’s confidently portrayed Sarah can’t save the film from its self-inflicted wounds.
So, David Fincher is left with a film that looks awfully nice, but is mostly too few good pieces not adding up to a cohesive whole. It’s worth a watch for the fantastic opening credits, Fosters slow mo run to the panic room, rotating camera angles and the cameras eye sliding all over the house, but for the most part, Panic Room can’t even be seen as a precursor to the elegant pop corn movies Fincher will make in the future.