If anything should be patently obvious after Panic Room, it is this: David Fincher is the next true American filmmaking genius. Those who disagree are welcome to take the matter outside.
From a guy who made Madonna videos, Fincher has evolved over the past decade into something akin to the Stanley Kubrick of his time—a creator of dark cinematic visions like Seven and Fight Club, destined to polarize audiences. It shouldn’t be surprising that Fincher once said, “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I never went swimming in the ocean again.”
Fincher has taken plenty of shots at scarring us, but what gets lost in the focus on his grim subject matter is how breathtakingly talented he is as a craftsman of tension. No subtext in Panic Room seems likely to make its way under your skin—indeed, it’s about as surface-level a plot machine as you’ll find. But it’s hard to imagine anyone driving that machine the way Fincher drives it.
At its core, this is high-concept stuff at its most elemental. Recently-separated Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is looking for a new place with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), and picks a priced-to-sell Manhattan brownstone. Naturally, there’s a reason it’s a bargain: The place was home to an eccentric millionaire, the kind of guy who built an in-house protective bunker known as a “panic room.” And while this particular feature wasn’t included in the real estate section write-up, it proves pretty useful when a trio of burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) break in on the Altmans’ first night in the house. Meg and Sarah lock themselves in the panic room, which presents a slight logistical tangle since what the burglars want is in that room, too.
Basically, that’s all there is to Panic Room—two people in an impregnable space, and three people trying to get them to come out. Foster gives Meg a whispered undertone of trophy wife-turned-empowered woman, but her development as a character proves almost incidental to the plot. Whitaker, as the most sympathetic of the assailants, also gets a token element of back story. But really, nothing that happens from a character standpoint matters in Panic Room. As long as a woman and her daughter are in that room, and threatening men are outside, any Method madness an actor could bring to the proceedings seems utterly pointless.
What does matter is the ingenuity a writer and director can bring to that claustrophobic set-up. Veteran screenwriter David Koepp gets the unenviable task of devising as many ways as possible to keep that single situation popping with possibilities, and he delivers. The minimalist dialogue is smart and often wickedly funny, and the set pieces never reek of implausibility. Like Groundhog Day, Panic Room is one of those films that keeps coming up with a new wrinkle every time you’re convinced there’s nowhere else it could possibly go.
Fincher, meanwhile, merely continues to raise the bar for himself. While his showy visuals might attract the most attention—like an extended tracking shot through the Altman house during the break-in—it’s the more subtle choices that mark him as a natural talent. Watch the way he conveys a key plot point involving Sarah without resorting to overt explanation. Marvel at the sense of timing captured in a wordless slow-motion sequence of Meg trying to retrieve a cell phone while the burglars are downstairs. Thrill to the way he gets maximum impact out of the house’s creepy geography. Visual storytelling with a pure adrenaline rush just doesn’t get much more effective.
Panic Room’s climax proves to be something of a letdown, both in its dependence on near-superhuman villains and in its unsatisfying resolution. It’s almost as though the film exerts so much energy on a masterful 100 minutes that it’s got nothing left for the sprint to the finish. Leave those final 10 minutes aside and this is suspense work on the level of Hitchcock and early Spielberg—pure edge-of-the-seat auteurist dynamism.
You’ve got to call David Fincher’s nerve-wracking sense of cinema brilliant, even if you wouldn’t necessarily call it “entertaining.” Fincher himself probably wouldn’t have it any other way.