Friday, March 18, 2011

Panic Room Movie Review

I’ve said recently in relation to The Social Network that director David Fincher is a talent I’ve been following closely since his second feature film Seven. He is one of the most original and unique directors of genre films working in Hollywood. Whether it’s the science-fiction horror of Alien 3 or the detective thriller of Zodiac, Fincher imbues each of his films with a distinctive visual style. You’ll never doubt that you’re watching one of his films.

Fincher has also been one of the best filmmakers at employing digital effects to enhance his stories, rather than as a means of shorthand. He uses CGI in places you’d never imagine. I was stunned to discover how much of Zodiac was shot against green screen. The seams are invisible. Although he employed a great deal of CGI in Fight Club it was Panic Room where it became obvious how much he relied on it. Most of the camera set ups and movements would not be physically possible without digital tricks.

Panic Room has the narrative feel of a short story. It’s tight and compact and employs the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. It takes five characters and locks them into a massive New York townhouse for most of the film’s running time.

Jodie Foster is Meg Altman. Recently separated from her philandering husband, she moves into the new house with her daughter, Sarah, played by a young very pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart, who was already displaying fine acting talent at age 12. Watching this now I’m not surprised at all that she has become a successful actress. On their first night they are the victims of a home invasion perpetrated by Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). Meg and Sarah lock themselves into the titular impregnable safe room. What they don’t realize is that the house belonged to Junior’s uncle and they’re there to steal several million dollars in bearer bonds from the floor safe – in the panic room.

Once the women are stowed away in the safe room the conflict divides two ways. There are the three thieves against the two women as they try to devise a way either to get into the room or get them to come out. Then there’s Meg’s problem, only alluded to, with enclosed spaces as well as Sarah’s diabetes which requires she receive insulin injections. The panic room has a separate phone line, but it hasn’t been connected, and her cell phone is in the bedroom.

Apart from an opening and a closing scene outside, the entire film takes place within the walls of the house. Fincher is great at creating dark and broody moods in his films and here he gets some assistance from the cinematographer Conrad W. Hall, son of the great Conrad L. Hall (Darius Khondji is also credited, but he left the production after two weeks) building and lighting the large interior space of the townhouse so that it feels claustrophobic, but keeping the panic room brightly lit, if a bit peeked from the pale fluorescents.

The screenplay by David Koepp establishes a third area of conflict is established between the thieves themselves as Raoul, the wild card, was brought in by Junior without Burnham’s knowledge. We learn Burnham is a family man who needs the money to save his house. Junior made a mistake in his calculations and thought the house would be empty. Burnham doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He especially doesn’t want to go to prison for 30 years. Raoul is the guy who wears a ski mask and brought along a gun. He’s obviously bad news and you just know with a guy like him around it’s not going to end well.

What Fincher does really well from early in the film is create a great sense of space within the apartment. When Meg goes to look at the house we see it in the daytime and brightly lit. The characters’ movement through the space establishes where the various rooms are in relation to one another. This is reinforced later when we see Junior and Burnham trying to enter from the outside. As they move around outside the camera stays inside and observes from within. The camera then moves in a continuous fluid shot (heavily aided by digital effects) throughout the building, passing through walls and coffee pots, entering keyholes, tying together all the rooms so you feel like it’s a real space that people can move around in. It’s important later to understand the layout of the building as Meg watches the movements of the three men on security cameras. This way she knows and we know how much time she has when she needs to leave the panic room to get her cell phone, for example.

This is a well-crafted and effective thriller, greatly aided by an evocative Howard Shore score. Shore is no stranger to thrillers (he scored The Silence of the Lambs as well as most, if not all, of David Cronenberg’s films) and his music here builds the tension of the narrative without ever stepping on its toes. I think I appreciate Panic Room a lot more now than I did at first. Now that Fincher has a much greater body of work to examine, it’s nice to go back and see him engaged in pure and simple filmmaking as storytelling without any eyes toward a prize during awards season. Not to suggest that I don’t think The Social Network is an excellent movie, but I think once a director gets a taste of awards glory, it has a tendency to flavor everything he does after that. So it’s nice to go back and enjoy their more modest enterprises once in a while.

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