frustrated burglars have broken into a New York City apartment
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
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
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
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
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.
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's..er, 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.
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.
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.
- In Panic Room, Fincher directs Dwight Yoakam, a musician trying
hand at acting. Name another Fincher movie that featured a musician
actor? Who was the musician?