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Jordan Hiller on Film

Panic Room

Three frustrated burglars have broken into a New York City apartment on the
Upper West Side (yes, some of the burglars are single and no, they don't want to go out with your friend). In cookie cut burglar fashion, they argue incessantly with profanity laced tough guy posturing about who is "in charge", who's "idea this was", and who "got them into this!" One burglar, a masked and overtly sinister, Raoul (Dwight Yoakam of country music fame), proves his toughness by claiming he would kill a little girl or her mom and this statement bothers the "nice guy" burglar (Forest Whitaker who can always play the bad guy with an ultimately good heart - See Diary of a Hitman). At this point, Whitaker makes a pop culture reference to the third burglar (Jared Leto of My So Called Life who sports "I'm mean now" corn-rows) by calling Raoul "Joe Pesci" - evidently a nod to Pesci's Goodfellas/Casino characters where he basically shot everyone who wasn't Robert DeNiro.

Beyond the fact that David Koepp's script revels in name dropping (Macguyver, Elmore Leonard) a la Kevin Williamson, you'll find that using "Joe Pesci" is unintentionally effective. What the name made me think of was Home Alone, where Pesci played alongside Daniel Stern as a bumbling crook lurking around the McAllister home on Christmas Eve. At this point, I
realized the troubling similarities between Panic Room and Home Alone. Both involve criminal activity in an upscale dwelling with "dangerous" bad guys being foiled by an unlikely source - and not much else. The Kevin in Panic Room is Jodie Foster's Meg Altman. She is a rich man's ex-wife who moves into the tremendous apartment with her daughter. The daughter, played well, but not overwhelmingly so, by Kristen Stewart, is a stereotypical rich New York hipster in training. Under this Home Alone theory you will realize that nothing in the movie is at all novel as far as the story is concerned. It is as if Koepp was made aware that something called a panic room exists - an impenetrable room where a homeowner can retreat to in case of an intruder -
and then incorporated or rather built a movie around this room. The panic room itself is a provocative concept and it says something about modern society, but I'm not sure if it deserved its own movie.

What makes the basicness of this thriller so upsetting is that it was the new David Fincher movie as well as Ms. Foster's return to the mainstream. Fincher has been the master of dark social commentary but with a quality of guilty pleasure popcorn entertainment over the past decade or so. His breakout film, Seven, was followed by the equally dynamic The Game and
capped by a movie that many people swear by (but not me) called Fight Club.

That is certainly a hot streak worth watching so there were eyes on Panic Room well before it was released and in that sense, it is a let down. With all possible respect for Mr. Fincher's genius - his streak has cooled and it is not even his fault. The only blame we can assign him is his poor choice in directing a script without enough juice to fuel his kinetic energy. The
weakness of the movie lies in the lack of passion, significance, and character or situation originality (beyond the physical presence of an actual "panic room" which was never dealt with before on screen). Koepp is essentially a Hollywood writer (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible) and Fincher would be better off picking scripts from the fringes. Taking these
truths into consideration, Fincher does a marvelous job of setting a mood that chills and creating a unique looking motion picture. Let's talk a bit about how this mood is created, because it is the one thing Panic Room has going for it. Note: Fincher always conveys pretty much the same mood in his movies - gloom and despair, but with the slightest speck of hope to escape
that darkness.

The movie opens in a remarkable but confounding way. The shots are of a daytime New York City with the opening credits implanted within the cityscape to an almost 3-D effect. The result is an extraordinary image that constantly stimulates the eye but the question remains - why was this done beyond the obvious fact that they could do it? Cut to mother and daughter
being shown the apartment, being entranced by it, and moving in. These scenes are handles with a determination to keep the story moving, but just relaxed enough and with an intuitive mix of wide and tight shots to have the heart pounding with expectation of anxieties to come. There is always something disturbing about large empty spaces without furniture or a look of
being lived in. When night falls the demon-like crooks arrive and enter the home (so far perfect) and then....the demons begin to speak. All off a sudden we lose interest and are all but disengaged. The movie hinges upon our fear for the Altmans and our loathing of these intruders, but once this befuddled trio opens their mouths we can't but lose faith in them as
believable characters.

There is not a shred of inventiveness divested in any of these men. Leto is the laughable loose cannon, but only when it comes to commanding others to act, Yoakam is the absurdly crazed X factor from whom we don't know how far
his insanity extends, and Whitaker is the unfortunate victim of society who we can count on to do the right thing when need be. None of these men elicited my respect and I firmly believe that for a Thriller to work, the audience needs to respect the warped position of the villain. If we don't buy into the legitimacy of the villain then how can we possibly care about
the steps they take to win the day? This is why Fincher's Seven was so moving - the villain (Kevin Spacey) got under our skin and lodged himself there indefinitely.

To give Koepp the benefit of the doubt we would need to say that these bad men were written tongue in cheek and their arrogance and stupidity is intended to make us smirk, but...why would anyone intend that in a movie like this?! It is hard to imagine that the makers did not catch the phony and clichéd character Raoul as being a complete caricature but at the same time, if they did, why didn't they fix it? The only time Raoul even became remotely scary was when he took off that idiotic prop mask and that was only due to Yoakam', um...he ugly. I'm almost positive that Leto's character was planned comic relief but again, too much comic relief ends up relieving the tension, which Fincher did such a masterful job building in the first twenty minutes of the film. There are also some inconsistencies in the story - some more mind-boggling than others. I won't state them here so that you can find them or ignore them yourself if you wish. I'll say that one involves a call to the police and the other is about the laser guard on the panic room door.

Jodie Foster is fine and intelligent as usual, but her abilities deserve more of a showcase than this. She runs about in her slick little tank top trying to be a lioness in protecting her daughter but it is like running in circles. The character, not the performance, carries little depth. I mean, how many versions of a worried face can even a great actress conjure up?
What saves the movie and makes it watchable is Fincher's talent and vision. I can already imagine this being in the Fincher DVD box set as the Bringing Out The Dead of Scorsese's box - a display of the vast potential but without
the charge of the others.

You can tell that Fincher loves directing - he loves the camera and what it can capture if put into the right hands. He track with looping and dizzying strokes allowing the camera to float like a displaced spirit. He takes us into the tiniest corners, through the narrowest pipes, snaking along wires and through keyholes. Again, like the opening credits, it is sometimes hard
to determine exactly why he exercises these camera tricks beyond showing off. Either way, they give the movie a distinct flavor worth checking out. I recommend the movie as a study in Fincher because some of his directing works exquisitely - specifically the scene where Foster leaves the panic room to get a cell phone. Without Fincher, this movie would be easily
forgettable - kind of like the young Kevin McAllister who was forgotten not once, but twice.

Trivia - In Panic Room, Fincher directs Dwight Yoakam, a musician trying his
hand at acting. Name another Fincher movie that featured a musician playing
actor? Who was the musician?

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