David Fincher: Panic Room (2002) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

David Fincher: Panic Room (2002)

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Ryan:  Panic Room is a film that shows David Fincher is having fun playing with his toys. Here he made a film with countless trick shots, awesome camera angels and a tension filled plot, yet the movie has always felt slight to me. This is the first movie since Alien 3 that did not have the strongest script and it shows in the film. We have gone from films exploring the darkness in men’s souls to a theme park ride type movie that is a contemporary cousin to such classic thrillers as Dial M For Murder or Wait Until Dark. With screenwriter David Koepp (Mission: Impossible, Jurassic Park) and star Jodie Foster, Fincher crafted a very entertaining and successful thriller but I almost feel like this type of movie is something that Fincher has moved beyond.

Now after saying that, let me state that I also find this movie immensely watchable because while it might be generic, it is made superbly. Koepp is never going to be considered as one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of cinema but he can make popcorn films pretty well and that is all Panic Room is. If you go into the film expecting Oscar caliber acting or a deep character piece you will be disappointed but when you are in the mood for a tense, fast-paced thriller, Panic Room fits the bill perfectly.

Fincher just has fun in this film with his tilting cameras, the long shots without edits and the way he builds and builds the action. Panic Room is a film that I could watch on mute and enjoy it just as much because I could follow the story just fine without the dialogue and I could marvel at the filmmaking on display even more.

One thing that might help the film by having it on mute is the acting. Fincher films usually have very strong acting in them but other than the always-enjoyable Forest Whitacre, I find the rest of the performances either boring or bad. I have never been the biggest fan of Jodie Foster and her mother bear character protecting her cub was ok but nothing that amazing. I felt that she could have done this movie in her sleep and wasn’t challenged by this role. She makes it out better than either Jared Leto who overacts to the tenth degree or Dwight Yoakam who I still can’t figure out is supposed to be a comic character or a genuine heavy. What did you think of the performances in this film?

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew: Ryan, did we decide to do this feature together because, aside from the volume of my and Jacob's disagreements, you and I tend to disagree more? I'm just pointing this out because you just got done saying you shouldn't expect Oscar quality anything, but that the film really is entertaining, but that the acting is horrible, but...

Anyway, you're confusing me here buddy.  You say that this is just another entertaining genre flick that Fincher has moved beyond but compare it to Dial M For Murder and Wait Until Dark.  Both of those are superb thrillers which time has been very kind to (save the cheesy dim the lights effect that has joined the seat tingling of The Tingler in cheesy theater "immersion".)  That's a mighty kind comparison to make and one which feels a bit more apt given the kind of film Panic Room is.

Look, Fincher is not Bergman and he has yet to work with a single screenwriter capable of the kind of dramatic heft Bergman could do (Aaron Sorkin can do great dialogue, not weighty emotional choices).  The script for Panic Room is the perfect anchor for the visuals and needed to be nothing more.  If some films are a writer's paradise this film, like most of Fincher's other work, is supposed to be a visual feast.  Fincher succeeds in spades, utilizing the surprisingly large space available to him in the house while still emphasizing the crampted nature of the surroundings.  Granted, the plot point for Jodie Foster's claustrophobia is brought up and discarded almost as quickly, but it means very little given her protective instincts have kicked into overdrive and it's also not a point to belabor for long.

Going back to your question about the performances, I think that Forest Whitaker's is the only one that leaves a good impression among most audiences because he's doing his normal sad sack with a heavy soul routine (which is why performances like his one on The Shield or The Last King of Scotland leave such an impression since he's doing the opposite).  Given that Fincher is trying to do another genre film there's absolutely nothing wrong with the rest of the performances, and since you already can't tolerate most of the performers I don't know what I can say to convince you otherwise, but here's the old college try.

Your Wait Until Dark comparison is great for Leto since he starts off Panic Room the same way Peter Sellers' wonderful performance in Wait Until Dark ends.  He's already on edge and quickly realizes the extra help he brought has been relying on his gigantic penis/gun instead of actually being able to think.  This is why Yoakam's performance works so effectively because he's hiding behind his mask and using his metal cock to throw his weight around.  Do you think it's any coincidence that the second he loses his gun we get behind the mask and see that he's a balding shell of a man?  He's emasculated now, having lost any claim to his manhood and the visuals, as well as Yoakam's performance, respond in kind.  Yoakam never seems like a legit heavy because he's play acting.  If we bought him as a heavy he would have played the role incorrectly.

If anything this film addresses some of the lingering concerns I've had with women in Fincher films, but it's time for a breather and I need a question answered.  Just what is wrong with this script?  It moves like gangbusters because the screenwriter is responsible for more than just the dialogue and Koepp creates increasingly clever scenarios for Foster and the intruders to each get a one-up on each other.  Fincher's visuals work wonders because the structure is there to work with as provided by Koepp.  Any insight as to why this is a sub-par screenplay would be greatly appreciated.

Ryan: Andrew, as you can tell, I am conflicted about this movie. Besides Fight Club, I think it is the most visually powerful film Fincher has done but I wanted something more out of it. I disagree that Fincher didn't work with screenplays with dramatic heft, I think both Se7en and Fight Club are very well written and deep films, but that is where our opinions differ.

I said that this is a cousin to films like Wait Until Dark and Dial M For Murder and I think why the two of them are classics and Panic Room is just ok is because you cared about the characters in the other two films. I don't hate any of the actors from this film. I actually really liked Jared Leto in movies before he became a "rock star" and thought he was really good in his small roles in Fight Club and American Psycho but he starts over the top in this film and just goes from there.

Dwight Yoakam has been fun in such movies as Crank but the screenplay never gives him a clear path to play. Is he an idiot with a gun and a mask? Is he a heavy and what Meg and her daughter should really be afraid of? He keeps going from one to another that he is neither. Don't point out that he is scary only with the gun than make him just as intimidating without it. The only time he was really the heavy is when he is walking with that sledgehammer at the end and if that would have been his character it would have been better. You can't have the heavy and the comic relief be the same guy effectively.

Finally, the screenplay is serviceable but it boils down everything to its one characteristic. The mom is of course claustrophobic, the daughter is asthmatic, the ex-husband a wet blanket and so on. In The Game, the movie twist and turned and always ended up where the movie had hinted at but it did not hint at it in flashing neon letters like this film did. From the beginning you knew when and how each of these plot points would be used and they were used in exactly that way.

Like I stated with Alien 3, Panic Room is a lesser movie in the Fincher canon, but if this is the lowest point a person has on their resume, his film work is pretty solid. Panic Room is the perfect popcorn movie, my one problem is with certain directors, I expect something a bit more than just popcorn entertainment.

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew:  I'll take the upgrade from "bad" screenplay to "serviceable"  but I think you missed the qualifier on dramatic heft.  No screenplay has worked with the kind of darkness Bergman so often frequented it was like he was taking another trip to the pub.  This isn't to say Fincher's films haven't tried for the kind of bleakness of Winter Light or Shame, but since he's opted to stay mostly with thrillers and only try to subvert them instead of realize their full potential Fincher's films will never hit true darkness, only tricky endings.

It's clear we aren't going to quite see eye to eye on Leto and Yoakam's performances but our approaches are obviously different as well.  When I find fault in Seven and glaring difficulties in Fight Club it's because I see Fincher is making bold statements about morality and modern capitalism with masculenity.  It's easier to see when the material is straining against the message.  But with a movie like Panic Room, which has the interesting fight between masculine and feminine, the duality is more interestingly played since it's buried in the subtext of "popcorn" entertainment.

Panic Room is a far greater success than Alien 3, but both are examples of films buried in genre entertainment which aren't taken as seriously as they should.  The flash of Panic is perfect, but it's much better than any other "popcorn" flick.

The room is sealed, and Ryan requires time to digest Zodiac, so the duo will return next Monday after tackling the behemoth.

Posted by Andrew

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