“Panic Room” is the ultimate example of Hollywood’s obsession with the high concept: A divorced woman and her daughter move into a new house with a “panic room,” a secret room designed to keep out intruders. When intruders arrive, the woman and her daughter escape into the panic room and everyone ends up fighting for their life. Cool. The most amazing part of the pitch is that it couldn’t have fit into one sentence.
As a thriller, “Panic Room” plays on the same dark and forbidden fears that “Panic Room” director, and scathing social critic David Fincher explored in previous efforts like “The Game” and “Seven.” Actually, the scares in “Panic Room” have more in common with the fear and paranoia of the Manson generation: You really can’t protect your family. You’re about to be horribly murdered. Your name will end up on the back of one of those death row gum cards.
So, what is a “panic room?” When Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into a massive brownstone, Foster asks the same question. The room is made of steel and built for paranoid rich people who are unusually scared of being murdered. The room is quite amazing: solid steel on three sides, with its own ventilation system and a separate phone line. There’s also the obligatory surveillance cameras which are a neat touch in the film, because we and the Foster character soon realize that anyone who needs to use this room, probably won’t want to see what’s on the outside trying to get in. I have a feeling these rooms were built around the time of the Manson killings, when Hollywood was swept up in terror, all the walls of protection shattered. “Panic Room” is uncanny in its ability to show the grisly significance of such a room. What does a panic room represent to someone who has one anyway?
Soon after Foster and her daughter have moved in, three burglars break into the house, determined to steal the lost millions reputed to have been hidden away by the last owner. Why do the burglars seem to know the house inside and out? What of the fourth wall that leads to a next door residence, a wall that seems like it might be vulnerable? Then we learn pretty quickly that Foster is claustrophobic, but the film kind of forgets this as it goes on. “Panic Room” is one full tilt boogie with the usual David Fincher garnishments(neat gadgets, ultra-hip camera angles, existential dread). We wonder if “Panic Room” can maintain its premise or if it will run out of gas, but it doesn’t; the film constantly finds interesting approaches for the room itself, and the dynamic of Foster trying to find a way to give the burglars what they want while being sure that they really don’t want to kill her and her daughter. The film is so busy and fast that it quickly deals with our most obvious questions: Why can’t Foster call the cops? Why doesn’t she just give the burglars what they want, with them being downstairs? Why is the panic room vulnerable? It’s not long before we’re focused solely on the premise. There aren’t many questions.
The three burglars themselves are probably the least interesting part of the movie, even though they’re three distinct characters: Whitaker, quiet; Leto, a wildcard; and Yoakam, a stoic psycho. All we care about is what they represent, and that’s the horrific reality that a man truly can’t protect his home, which is a shattering discovery. I liked the relationship between Foster and Stewart who seem to have a laconic chemistry with each other, built out of a trusting mother-daughter relationship. But what would happen if one of them were isolated outside of the room? The “Panic Room” seems to be asking us that same question too.
“Panic Room” is, of course, a David Fincher film and it has all of his fingerprints. What all of Fincher’s films have in common is a contempt for the forbidden desires of the rich and mysterious. There’s a class warfare in “Panic Room” as there was in “Seven”(remember Kevin Spacey’s sermon?) and Fincher has little sympathy for anyone in his films. He also has a deep obsession with murder and pop culture and how the two twist against each other. “Panic Room” is a very scary film, well made and lovingly dark, and it illustrates how terrified we are of becoming the victims we see on TV. I mentioned the film’s uncanny parallels with the Manson culture. Does anyone remember Sharon Tate for her movies?