More noise than signal

Panic Room

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Off the back of Fight Club, I don’t think anyone would have picked this altogether more conventional script as the obvious next step for Fincher’s directorial career, but apparently after the sprawling Fight Club he wanted to pick something rather more contained and intimate. So enter Panic Room, and unfortunately another troubled gestation, with bust-ups with his DP and the withdrawal of Nicole Kidman just before shooting due to an injury.

Jodie Foster takes over the lead as Meg Altman, moving into a nice old house in Manhattan after her divorce, along with her daughter Sarah (Kirsten Stewart). It seems much bigger than they need, even coming equipped with the titular panic room installed by the previous owner, but before they have a chance to unpack, things start to go bump in the night.

No ghosts, thankfully, but a selection of robbers up to no good, who in time are revealed to be Junior (Jared Leto), a carer for the now-dead prior owner who has learned of a secret stash of cash hidden in the house, Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who works for the security company that installed the house’s panic room, and Raoul (Dwight Yokam), a general purpose thug playing a floating sweeper role.

While they keep their efforts to break in relatively quiet, it’s clear they’re not expecting anyone to be in the house just yet, and they alert Meg, who scampers off with Sarah into the panic room. Normally a good plan, but the mystery treasure these lads are after resides in a floor safe inside the panic room, so they set about finding ways of flushing them out, while Meg and Sarah try to find ways of attracting attention to their plight, with a somewhat artificial clock being put on things by diabetic Sarah’s falling blood sugar level and missing insulin injection.

Their attempts are aided by a certain amount of pre-existing strains between the robbers, with Burnham’s distaste for Raoul’s violent streak evident leading to some small measure of redemption for him by the end of the film, but perhaps nowhere near enough as the script would want you have with him – he’s still a thief, after all, and as markers for humanity go, administering a life-saving injection to a dying child rather than, well, not isn’t much more than a baseline.

There is, perhaps, not that much glaringly wrong about Panic Room, but it’s very much the most mundane of the films we’ve spoken about so far, and it’s perhaps the one where Fincher’s visual slickness integrates least well with the narrative, giving the film an unsettling feel, albeit an entirely different one than the script wants to create.

I’ve no real issues with any of the performances, from all of the cast, but, well, there’s not really all that much in the way of challenging material for them to get their teeth into. The film’s competent, but almost completely unremarkable in every way.

Fincher, a man who’s gratifying not the permanent hype jockey when on PR junkets said of this (and partially The Game), he “…didn’t look at Panic Room and think: Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire. These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They’re not particularly important”. Perhaps the only problem with this analysis is that while there’s not much to feel guilty about in Panic Room, but not a great deal of pleasure to take from it either.