Panic Room Review
There's a growing tendency on the part of some film critics to look at the careers of certain up-and-coming directors, and attempt to compare them to pre-existing models. In some cases, this is sensible; Cameron Crowe's work does resemble much of Billy Wilder's, and Paul Thomas Anderson's films do come close to Robert Altman's 70s masterpieces. Of course, this becomes problematic when a director such as David Fincher comes along; critics have tried to compare him to Kubrick, Hitchcock and, bizarrely, Fassbinder (God knows why), but instead it's best to take his work on its own terms, as the product of an extremely talented director in his own right. Panic Room is an all but perfect example of how genuinely brilliant direction can not only save a film, but turn it into a superb example of an inevitably generic piece.
The plot was said to be a mix of Rear Window and Straw Dogs, but in fact comes closer to Wait Until Dark, Frederick Knott's play about a blind woman terrified by a trio of crooks. Here, the crooks (Whitaker, Leto and Yoakam) are attempting to break into the 'panic room' of the title, in the house of recently divorced Meg Altman (Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Stewart), who in turn have only just moved in. Problems begin to arise when Meg and Sarah secure themselves in the panic room, an impregnable chamber with concrete walls, a stainless steel door and (supposedly) the ability to contact the outside world instantly in times of emergency. However, the film would be very short if such a thing came to pass, and instead the tension is racked up increasingly effectively, as Meg and Sarah find themselves trying desperately to get out unharmed, which, if Yoakam's character has his way, looks unlikely.
On paper, there is no reason why the film should work half as well as it does. Koepp's script is efficient, occasionally witty and utterly uninspired; not only are the comparisons with Wait until Dark so obvious as to occasionally verge on plagiarism, but there's also a decidedly conventional Hollywood tone to the proceedings for the first half, at least until things get nightmarishly violent; the other, even less complimentary comparison is with Home Alone, which even gets referenced in what is presumably intended to be a sop to critics who wish to draw such parallels. Another problem lies in the casting; after Nicole Kidman was forced to pull out due to a broken rib, the choice of Jodie Foster to star was sensible from the viewpoint that she's an excellent actress, and brings her usual intensity and edginess to the role. However, she doesn't come across as especially maternal or at all vulnerable; the only surprise is that she doesn't pick up a sledgehammer straight away and start having it out with the intruders.
With all these potential difficulties and problems, you might ask, how on earth does the film work? Those of an observant nature may well have guessed this part by glancing at the scores, but it can be pointed out anyway; the film confirms Fincher as one of the most, if not the most, exciting directors working today. Combining the visual pizzazz and wit of Fight Club with the doomladen intensity and style of Se7en (it's always raining, and there are lots of brilliantly fancy camera movements), he manages to take a simple popcorn movie, and, while still keeping it firmly fixed on that level, make it something rather special.
A typical example is a scene where Meg, seeing that the interlopers have become distracted for a moment, makes a desperate attempt to leave the room to retrieve her mobile phone. Virtually any other director would have shot the scene with lots of jittery, fast-cutting camerawork and pounding music, in a textbook attempt to make it 'exciting'. Fincher, however, eschews this, and instead shoots the entire scene in silent slow-motion. It shouldn't work, but, in the context of the film, it becomes edge-of-seat stuff, to the point where one has to fight the urge to start shouting nonsense at the screen.
Doubtless, those who are vocally proclaiming Fincher to be the next Kubrick will insist that this is a modern masterpiece. It isn't, and anyone claiming that it is should be instructed to watch Se7en for an indication of what he's really capable of. But, for an exercise in marking the time before his next, epoch-defining masterpiece, this will do very nicely indeed. Shame about the clumsy little coda at the end, though...