Panic Room

dir: David Fincher
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There's no disputing that this is a technically adept film. There is also no denying the irony that whilst being one of David Fincher's most successful movies at the box office, it is also one of his most uninvolving pictures to date. I have pretty high expectations when it comes to the guy.

In a recent interview in Sunday's Age, Fincher draws a distinction between the 'films' and the 'movies' he makes. His 'films' so far have been Se7en and Fight Club, his movies, in his own words, would therefore be Alien 3, The Game and now Panic Room. He loosely defined (or I am sporadically paraphrasing him in such a way as to further my own flimsy argument) movies as being made solely for an audience, whereas 'films' are where a director has greater leeway, and creates the picture for himself/herself as much as for an audience.

This could also be linguistic shorthand for Fincher telling us that his great films have been the ones where the studios backed off and let him make the film he wanted to make (and resulted in moderate success at the box office), as opposed to the studio driven movies he's made, which with the exception of Panic Room were also relative box office failures. Alien 3 is remarkable only so far as being one of the most loathed science fiction films of the last twenty years (though perhaps not as hated as Alien Resurrection, needless to say). The Game was a moderately interesting so-called 'high' concept thriller which, due to the ridiculous level of contrivance and coincidence involved resulted in a complete inability on the part of the audience to suspend any remaining disbelief, or any interest in doing so.

When you combine that with Michael Douglas' overwrought head, you've got a mass campaign example of operant conditioning aimed at video renters being compelled to eject the video from their players in order to break said tape with the nearest blunt object, be it animal, vegetable or family member.

Se7en, his first 'film' was both a box office and critical success / threat. Stateside it grossed just over $100 mill, worldwide it grossed over $300 mill, which is pretty good considering what a world-weary, sick fucking film that was. Since then his picture's takes at the box office has been declining steadily, to the point where Fight Club inexplicably made around $30 mill domestically US (gee, I wonder why).

I shall not dwell overly long on Fincher's so-called 'films' Se7en and Fight Club, suffice to say that I consider Fight Club to be one of the most amazing films of the last twenty years; a truly challenging film which achieved levels of virtuosity rarely seen in the delivery of an aesthetic, a story, a manifesto, a lament, an intellectual invasion and a dare to an audience which stayed away in droves but caught up with it on video / cable.

This is, after all, meant to be a review of Panic Room. As the casual reader might be able to tell, the fact that the introduction to this review has gone on for so long does not bode well at all. The primary reason is that there is little to tell.

The last mention I'll make of the David Fincher interview is to say that he mentions two issues: the house and the film itself has as its subtext the idea of divorce (not merely as a plot device), and that having Nicole Kidman pull out as the main character Meg Altman (due to injury), and having to replace her with Jodie Foster significantly changed the dynamic of the film, and I can see why.

Originally, I can see the role of Meg as the central protagonist pitting her wits against the home invaders was conceived somewhat differently. With Nicole Kidman in the role, she would have been set up more as the dainty former trophy wife of some rich bastard, forced to deal with an untenable position in order to save herself and her child from the forces of evil. With a willowy Kidman in that role, you can see that it would have required a greater transition, a greater distance to travel as a character (hypothetically, of course). With Jodie Foster, you already have an established presence, a superb actress who's played strong roles before, most notably of course in Silence of the Lambs. So when you see her in a film, to a certain extent you expect a particular character. She doesn't disappoint, though the film certainly disappointed me.

All in all, it's a curiously uninvolving film experience. It's technically competent but ultimately uninteresting and, worst of all, especially for someone of Fincher's caliber, overly pedestrian. A film's greatest crime for me, apart from having Melanie Griffith in it, is when it aims for a certain level of mediocrity and actually achieves it. This film exemplifies the idea of letting your technical / CGI people off the leash, and constraining your writers and your actors with the most cliche, uninspired situations ever put to paper.

The blame doesn't belong with any of the actors. The bad guys, Burnham (Forest Whitaker) Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) and Junior (Jared Leto) all carry themselves well, especially Burnham, who's meant to be the 'noble' thief archetype, which is so old that Jesus himself would complain about Burnham's Jesus Christ Pose at the end of the film. They're not complete idiots, in that one of them has the technical knowledge, one of them is a complete sociopath, and one of them is a crack smoker who betrays his own secrets by talking to himself. Wait a second, they actually sound pretty stupid, don't they?

The Meg character is pretty much able to run circles around her incompetent attackers. It's not at the level of the Home Alone films, but it smacks of something on a par.

Meg Altman, a recent, alcoholic divorcee and her precocious tomboy daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart, definitely a hermaphrodite) awake during their first night in their new brownstone (a house so expensive that probably only Jodie Foster in real life would be able to afford it) to find that three nasty men are creeping around their castle. Tally ho, and off to the aforementioned panic room in order to hide from the baddies in relative safety and comfort and to be able to watch them on the monitors and swear at them through the intercom.

But wait, that which the baddies broke in to steal is in the very same panic room that Meg and Sarah are currently trembling within! And Sarah's a diabetic who needs her insulin or she'll die! And the man who built that very panic room is one of the criminals! And Raoul's a psychopath who could spaz out and do something crazy at any moment!

There are few, if any surprises here, little feeling of actual danger. There are plenty of attempts to create false jeopardy situations, but because the format seems so staid and expected, you can assume (correctly) how things are going to pan out, ultimately. As well, there are lots of sweeping continuous (computer aided) shots at film's beginning, but they add little to the film apart from the impression that Fincher and his cinematographer would have loved to have made a film without all these pesky actors around.

The overwhelming impression or feeling generated by the film is one of coldness, sterility. The house might as well have been a three-story morgue; it would have generated more emotion.

There is a mistake that a viewer can make in that when a character doesn't do something specifically stupid in a given situation, you make the assumption that the character is intelligent. I can argue that depending on how you look at the actions (or inaction) of the characters in particular situations, they actually come across looking kinda dumb.

Case in point: at one stage our baddies decide that the way to convince Meg and Sarah to vacate the panic room is by gassing the room with propane gas from a conveniently located barbecue gas cylinder. Consider the situation, and the eventual resolution: the panic room starts filling up with a gas making it hard for the occupants to breathe. Hypothetically, if the situation were allowed to continue, the occupants could pass out, and most likely not die since propane gas is not poisonous. If they were to pass out, the crims would be no closer to realising their ambitions, since there's no-one to open the door (which can only be opened from the inside).

Yet they persist in their plan, since the person doing it (Raoul, though it's initiated by Burnham) is something of a nutter. I guess. Or is it merely convenient to have a character so devoid of the faculty of logic that they'd persist in such a dumb plan?

Meg decides to resolve the situation in a manner which can best be described as foolhardy, considering the amount of gas that had already been pumped into the room. In fact, in the same situation, one could have expected that being in a confined space, no matter how many blankies you put the kids under, you would in no uncertain terms blow/burn the hell out of yourself and your nearest and dearest. This would require a possible re-evaluation of the plan right from the start, at least from someone that prized their eyebrows. But here conveniently, the effect is borne by the crims instead, and the Macaulay Culkinesque antics of Foster don't literally backfire upon her.

Another case in point: Throughout the ordeal, the crims know they can be watched by Meg in the panic room due to all the cameras set around the house. Not only do they know this, but they play up to it, attempting to manipulate her and communicate with her through their use. At a particular stage when the tables have been turned, and they are inside the room, with Meg on the outs, she proceeds to purposefully destroy every camera in the house so they can't see what she's doing. Our genius Raoul mutters "Now why didn't we think of that?"

Wait one goddamn second there, bucko. You may be be ugly, and a crappy country / western singer, and it may perplex me that not only does Bridget Fonda go out with you but she actually lets you screw her, but there is a mystery even greater than that right here before us: You knew she was watching you, used it to communicate with her, but you're telling me that you didn't want to be seen? And your respect for technology was so great that you couldn't bring yourself to smash the cameras just like she did? Even the Three Stooges could have worked that out, nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Another case in point: Junior reveals that instead of the loot being 3 million dollars, it’s actually 21 million dollars. He reveals this to the others inadvertently in a conversation. With himself. He was previously hiding this information from his fellow thieves, and reveals it by talking to himself. Have another smoke of the crackpipe, Junior, you deserveit for being so incredibly dopey.

Another case in point: aww forget it I’ll be here all week.

There’s no comparison between this and any of the films of Hitchcock, despite many of the reviews you might see and the promotional material for it. One of Hitchcock’s films that is hardest for me to watch (due to its pace more than anything else) is Frenzy. Frenzy is a far more visceral and intelligent film than this, and it’s probably one of Hitchcock’s weakest films as well. In Frenzy, dumb actions have repercussions, serious repercussions. In good dramas / thrillers, that which dictates what is going to happen next is the hard decisions that they have to make, and the consequences of those actions. Here the characters are ciphers to the plot, made to move around in a desultory fashion until the end credits role.

So the plot meanders about to its expected conclusion. There are little touches thrown in to add some wafer-thin characterisation: Burnham isn't really a criminal by profession or inclination, but rationalises it away as necessity, Junior is just a bit of a rich kid bitter crack addict loon who wants a bigger slice of the inheritance pie, Raoul is just, I dunno, Raoul. A bus driver who wants to be a bad-ass. I take that back, there is stuff all characterisation. Burnham is the only one that actually seems like a character instead of being a plot device. What a nice fellow. I would have preferred something more like the bad dude from Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, but then I rarely get what I want when it comes to film.

The 'divorce' angle isn't a difficult subtext to pick up: a house 'divided', recent divorcee needs to battle demons on her own, and even when ex-hubby tries to intervene she's still the one who has to fight for herself in order to survive. See, I get all that, I just don't care.

The daughter Sarah doesn't exist as a real character. Her purpose is only to say 'fuck' at every opportunity, to be suffering diabetes to add an additional time jeopardy element, and to exist as a plot device in distress for the crims to use against Meg. It could just as easily have been a poodle, though it would probably be expensive to train a dog to swear, you'd probably have to go over union rates, since I'm sure Hollywood dogs can get SAG cards these days.

This represents my greatest problem with this film, and why it took me so long to write a review of it; there's simply not enough to say about it. It's bland and unmemorable to the point where I'd started forgetting about it as I was walking out of the theatre, and that just ain't right. The level of talent brought together here deserved a better film. But as it stands this tepid 'thriller' which is ultimately devoid of thrills will be forgotten by month's end.

And that's how things stand. Mediocre films are sometimes harder to rip the shit out of because there's just not enough to criticise, and there aren't enough ways to talk about the paths that either should or shouldn't have been taken. Here the problem is with the conception of the story, I feel. The realisation of it is superb, the acting is more than adequate, but it's the base material that's the problem.

It's the equivalent of getting the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play a Britney Spears song. They'd be able to play one of her crappy songs with absolute technical proficiency and great ability, but the song is still an unmitigated piece of shit, yes? Don't you see where I'm coming from, man? Well, nuts to you.

The one thing that still sticks out for me were the opening credits. They looked truly superb. They consisted of 3D lettering superimposed and suspended across some amazing examples of New York architecture. Truly inspired. Shame about the rest of the film.
David Fincher, you let me down. Pray it doesn't happen again.

6 out of 10 from me.