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Panic Room

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  • Noel Vera
    No exit Noel Vera David Fincher s Panic Room tells the story of a young not-so-gay divorcee (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) spending the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31, 2002
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      Noel Vera

      David Fincher's "Panic Room" tells the story of a young not-so-gay divorcee
      (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) spending the first night
      in their spacious new brownstone. Of course something is going to go
      wrong--this is a Fincher film--and of course Fincher is going to try and
      wring every drop of visual tension out of the situation.

      "Wrong" comes in the form of three burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto,
      and Dwight Yoakam) who break into the brownstone looking for the millions of
      dollars supposedly hidden there. Foster goes into immediate
      action--splashing water in her daughter's face, picking the girl up and
      dashing into what the real estate salesman had earlier described as a "panic
      room," a specially designed steel-and-concrete bolthole where people can
      hide when danger comes knocking. And there they sit, waiting, while the
      three men outside put their heads together in an attempt to persuade Foster
      to open the door.

      Fincher has a lot of guts, setting himself up for comparison with The Master
      of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. "Panic Room's" premise and the
      visual strategy resulting from that premise are just the sort of game
      Hitchcock would attempt in the '40s and '50s, in effect tying an arm behind
      his back while he thrilled his audience. His "Lifeboat" (1944) took place
      almost entirely in a lifeboat; his "Rope" (1948) was cut and photographed to
      look like a single continuous shot. Possibly his best, most sophisticated
      take on these games would be "Rear Window," where the film tells its
      story--about a photographer's dawning suspicion that his neighbor has
      murdered his wife--entirely from the photographer's point of view. The
      mystery--its hints and clues and lurid suggestions--are presented only as
      the photographer (who is nursing a broken leg) sees or deduces them, from
      the confines of his wheelchair, inside his apartment.

      Fincher plays a similar game, though without as much wit or rigor--most of
      the movie takes place in a single night, within the confines of the
      brownstone's four thousand two hundred square feet of floor space. He gets
      some of Hitchcock's strategies right--giving us an early tour of the place
      so that we know exactly where everything is, or dropping the sound at a
      crucial moment, so that we stop our collective breathing in a kind of
      sympathetic response.

      It's a game that fits Fincher's style of "gee whiz" filmmaking, where the
      camera goes into all kinds of gleeful acrobatics (is it mere coincidence
      that one of his earlier works was titled "The Game?"). Possibly Fincher's
      greatest virtue is his ability to create texture and ambiance out of varied
      elements, an important first step towards what you might call "an artistic
      vision." You see it in his films, from "Se7en" to "Fight Club" to this
      movie--that sense of almost palpable darkness, of a gray, grim light
      struggling to illuminate a world choked with refuse.

      It's an important first step, but it's not enough; along with that look you
      need a sensibility, and Fincher is unfortunate enough to choose scripts that
      look like they're saying something important, but are too cartoonish to be
      credible. Fincher almost sold me on his ideas on nihilism and despair in
      "Se7en," until he brought in Kevin Spacey spouting new-age serial killer
      profundities in his uniquely casual, spaced-out manner. "Fight Club" was
      almost a sharp and canny meditation on the unvoiced needs of men, until it
      turned into an elaborate conspiracy to take over the world. Fincher is the
      kind of filmmaker who's undermined by his ambitions--the best you can say
      about him is that he has ambitions, and the ability to at least partly
      realize them. With "Panic Room" he comes closest to doing that--with the
      not entirely unfair observation that maybe he comes close because his
      objectives aren't all that grand to begin with here. Fincher's playing the
      Hitchcock game, and playing it fairly well; it may not be too far off to say
      this may be his best work yet.

      Which, after all is said and done, isn't saying much. "Panic Room" has its
      pleasures--mainly the sight of the visibly healthy Jodie Foster (what kind
      of cereal does she eat in the morning, anyway?) sprinting down one corridor
      after another, plus the sight of Forest Whitaker raising a wearily crooked
      brow in skeptical appraisal. There's so much of Whitaker in this film--more
      than we've had the pleasure of in while--that I'm inclined to recommend it
      on that basis alone.

      Whitaker is essentially playing an empty suit, however (and doing a
      remarkable job of filling it, nevertheless); you might say that Fincher's
      single biggest flaw is that he tends to substitute production design and
      cinematography for characterization and convincing psychology. As the film
      progresses and the conflict between the women inside and the men outside
      becomes desperate, the psychology grows less complex, not more. You don't
      get that painful moment of self-recognition that Hitchcock allows you in,
      say, "Rear Window," when the photographer realizes that his act of sustained
      voyeurism is possibly more perverse than the crime he suspects has been
      committed. It's an indictment of the man's character, an indictment of his
      profession (photography, and by implication, cinema), and an indictment of
      all of us, getting our kicks out of watching him get his kicks out of
      watching someone get his kicks out of killing. Sensibility, served with
      style--the crucial difference.

      Even on the level of plain entertainment, "Panic Room" isn't so nearly as
      perfect a job as "Rear Window;" you only have to remember James Stewart and
      Grace Kelly's wonderfully sexy repartee to wonder: well, Jodie Foster has
      that intercom system handy--couldn't she trade some sexual innuendoes with
      Whitaker outside? And the revelation (those who wish to be as innocent as
      driven snow when watching the film may want to skip the rest of this
      paragraph) that Foster's daughter is suffering from diabetes, and needs a
      crucial insulin shot--that's the kind of detail Hitchcock would establish in
      the beginning, to create greater tension when the two are shut in. Part of
      being a master filmmaker is that you get to exploit every aspect and detail
      of your story to your advantage, using a kind of economy of means to achieve
      an elegance of effect. In other words: waste not, want not.

      "Panic Room's" breathlessly eventful and rather unconvincing ending brings
      to mind another master storyteller, one perhaps even more perverse than
      Hitchcock: J.G. Ballard. He would love the idea of a panic room--of a mind
      paranoid enough to conceive of such a thing in the first place. I can
      imagine him retooling the story, throwing Foster and her silly daughter out,
      and focusing on the old man who built the thing. What would go through his
      head? Wouldn't he try doing "test runs," where he would disappear from the
      world for days, maybe even weeks at a time? What kind of thoughts and
      attitudes would bloom from the characters Ballard would create--the writer
      who did "The Crystal World," where people embraced the end of the world
      instead of fighting it, and "Empire of the Sun" where the hero welcomed the
      Japanese invasion of China in World War 2? Fincher captures the
      claustrophobic feel of being prisoner in your own townhouse all right, but
      he fails to capture the feel of being prisoner in your own mind--which is
      the more interesting proposition, I think, and one the film doesn't even
      begin to deal with. Fincher, you might say, is a prisoner of his own pulp
      sensibilities, and has yet to find a way out.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)




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