Panic Room (2002)

David Fincher | 1hr 53min

After crafting a magnificently daring crime film in Seven and a gripping thriller in Fight Club, David Fincher is evidently dedicating his talents towards something a little more modest with Panic Room, largely containing its action within the confined quarters of one family’s Manhattan townhouse. It says a lot about his success as a director though that a film as handsomely mounted as this could ever be consider one of his more minor accomplishments, especially given how much it carries through the consistent devotion to evocative, murky lighting that has largely defined his gloomy aesthetic. As darkness infiltrates the corners and stairwells of this claustrophobic home, so too does Fincher send three thieves inside with the intention of stealing money hidden in its secret panic room, carrying out a tightly-plotted home invasion story with exhilarating terror.

The titular panic room is soaked in Fincher’s fluorescent lighting design, and he uses its confined geography well to keep his staging inside it dynamic.

Jodie Foster leads here as Meg, a recently divorced mother looking to start a new life with her daughter, Sarah, played by a young Kristen Stewart. The townhouse’s layout and the functions of the panic room are economically set up during their inspection early on, though more than anything else it is the harsh, fluorescent lighting of this hideaway which establishes it as a grim yet impenetrable sanctuary, setting it apart from the rest of the home. Inside, high and low camera angles often feel like the only way we can possibly fit into the space with the actors, whose faces look even more terrified bathed in its dim, green glow. Throughout the rest of the house, Fincher’s lighting is a little softer in its warmer hues, though his smothering visual darkness remains as much a part of the environment as the infrastructure that all parties wield against each other in a Home Alone-style stand-off.

Fincher is a master of dim lighting and darkness, using it to create some imposing frames out of his walls, doorways, and furniture – this house would probably look entirely ordinary if it wasn’t lit like this.

The levity that came with the 1990 Christmas comedy is barely present in Panic Room though. The closest we get to any humour is a highly-strung, animated performance from Jared Leto as Junior, the grandson of the house’s previous owner now returning to claim his hidden money with two co-conspirators. His gang’s idea to pump propane gas through the air vents into the panic room quickly turns south when Meg cleverly ignites it from the other end, badly burning him and proving her to be a truly formidable opponent. Next to Junior, Dwight Yoakam’s psychopathic thug, Raoul, proves to be even deadlier and more unpredictable than any other character though, and Forest Whittaker serves well as Burnham, the most sensitive and empathetic of the group. Between all three criminals, there is more than enough character drama going on to sustain its own storyline, building tension in their interactions even beyond the primary conflict at play.

With such a rich ensemble of characters and a versatile set to play with, Fincher delights in pushing the creative limits of his camerawork all through Panic Room, angling it from positions that turn the space into a diorama of sorts, using walls to split frames right down the middle and view multiple rooms at once. Even more experimental are his simulated tracking shots, flying through floors, keyholes, pipes, and even the handle of a jug in long takes, probing crevices that no ordinary human or camera could possibly reach. In this way, Fincher playfully lifts us beyond the perspective of any one character, and instead positions us as an invisible, omniscient third party, free to independently roam the environment. Just as time often feels as if it is compressing in these break-neck camera movements, so too does it radically elongate in slow-motion sequences, at one point turning what might have been a mere few seconds of Meg’s brief dash outside the panic room into a nail-biting minute and a half, intensified even further by Fincher’s intercutting with the thieves downstairs.

At times the entire house is shot like a diorama, with the camera entirely ignoring the barriers of walls, floors, and obstacles in its way.

Not every narrative beat is played to perfection, particularly as Panic Room introduces a couple of artificial contrivances here and there to build suspense, but its classical Hollywood conventions are otherwise integrated with superb elegance, beautifully calling back to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a conclusively dramatic shot of the much sought-after money blowing away in the wind. It is in moments like these that Fincher’s manipulation of expressive lighting and pressing darkness thrillingly force the terror of this hellish night upon us, transcending the perspective of any single character to instil in us an even greater dread than any one of them experiences alone.

One of the strongest compositions of the film caught from this low angle, as flashlights and lamps shine down on Forrest Whittaker.

Panic Room is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

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