For a while now I’ve had this idea that David Fincher is the unthinking person’s David Cronenberg. Fincher’s work with longtime Cronenberg collaborator and Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore on Seven and The Game nurtured this suspicion. His current film, Panic Room, only confirms it.
When Seven came out, I went to a late-night screening by myself and hurried home, in fear for my life. By the next day, though, the only explanation I could offer to an interested friend was that it had the best opening credits I’d ever seen. By contrast, 16 years afterward, I still have nightmares about being delivered of a translucent white pupa, snapping and whipping around in agony like Geena Davis’ dream baby in Cronenberg’s The Fly. Later, after seeing Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, I vowed to patronize only women gynecologists. By now the disparities between Fincher’s visual fetishism and Cronenberg’s inspired perversity are apparent: Cronenberg’s images get under your skin and into your psyche, while Fincher’s only have the power to make your skin crawl.
Both Fincher and Cronenberg revel in seducing audiences with portrayals of depravity and vice, but Cronenberg seems better able to wed style to substance. He does so in part by orchestrating encounters with the grotesque through characters, so he’s able to build upon visual, visceral, intellectual and emotional elements. Fincher, who got his start making music videos for the likes of Madonna and Aerosmith (“Express Yourself,” “Vogue,” “Janie’s Got a Gun”), thumbs his nose at important elements of narrative film, like character development and motivation, while laying on atmosphere with a trowel. So it’s surprising that Fincher has attracted serious actors like Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Sean Penn and Jodie Foster, given how little his films seem to care about their characters even when they’re being beaten up or psychologically tortured–or both, as is usually the case. Despite respectable performances by Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart, Panic Room conforms to the Fincher pattern: The claustrophobic world of the New York brownstone where the film takes place gets whatever emotional impact it has almost entirely from a moving camera, a murky mise en scene, and a steady rain. Like Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in Fight Club, the characters stumbling around in the dark inside this piece of prime real estate are expendable. The film never lets you forget it.
The house is the star of the picture even from the opening scene. Fincher can’t wait to get recently divorced Meg Altman (Foster) and her scooter-riding punk daughter Sarah (Stewart) into the one-of-a-kind, 4,200-square-foot Upper West Side behemoth, which includes its own “panic room”: a secure, unbreachable vault protected by three inches of steel and outfitted with a toilet, a phone and video monitors–for all your home invasion needs. Meg’s bitterness over her recent divorce from Sarah’s father, pharmaceutical magnate Steven Altman (Patrick Bauchau) supposedly prompts the purchase. Despite Meg’s protests that the house is too big and the panic room is too small, she buys the place. She’s a bit unsteady because her husband has ditched her for trophy wife number two, played in an audio cameo by Nicole Kidman (the film’s original Meg until a knee injury forced her withdrawal). Meg plans to attend Columbia, seems to be claustrophobic, and refuses to allow Sarah to voice her resentment of her father and his new wife.
But there’s little time to develop Sarah or Meg as rounded characters before three unsavory fellows are downstairs, peering through ground-level glass doors and easily breaching the security system. Not to worry, because Meg’s character traits don’t much matter in the end. Her claustrophobia and insecurity take a back seat to her maternal instincts when she and Sarah retreat to the womb-like fortress of the panic room. Soon they learn that Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) are after something inside that very room. The director being Fincher, of course, they’re not interested in the women, an intriguing possibility that the film’s trailer hints at. Instead, the thugs are intent upon carting off millions of dollars the former resident buried in the panic room. Junior stands to inherit part of the bounty if it’s found, but doesn’t want to share it with his relatives, preferring to truck with thieves. The fact that Junior didn’t have the wherewithal to get his hands on the money before the old man died is not exactly an unsolved mystery: His personality is so grating and Leto’s overacting is so annoying that when he gets his comeuppance, the other actors behave as if it’s safe for good acting once again.
The fact that all three men are somewhat intellectually challenged is played for Tarantinoesque laughs: Raoul insults Burnham by calling him “McGyver,” and Junior tells Raoul, “Don’t give me that Elmore Leonard bullshit, because I saw that movie too.” All kidding aside, they don’t make sense as characters, only as types with occasional quirks required by the plot. Whitaker as Burham is the gentle giant, a reluctant safe cracker who needs the money to gain custody of his children. Yet he turns on a dime when he learns that Junior lied about how much money is in the safe, and becomes adamant about finishing the job, before reassuming his role as the sympathetic burglar for the remainder of the film. (The fact that the “smartest” of the three burglars thought the house would be empty does not explain why he wears a work shirt with his name stitched on it to a robbery.) Raoul exhibits the greatest coherence of the three, mainly because the character is a reprise of Yoakam’s role in Sling Blade. As in that film, between bouts of snarling sadism, he doffs his headgear and admits to a full-fledged bad hair day.
Panic Room draws upon a lineage of spine-tingling claustrophobic thrillers including Lady in a Cage, Sorry Wrong Number, Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark. In these films, men invade domestic spaces and terrorize the resourceful women who serve as the focus for identification and angst. But Fincher takes a cue from Rosemary’s Baby and runs with it just a little too far when he redirects the emphasis from character to the tony brownstone. Endowing an inanimate structure with organic qualities can be very effective, and the film’s intriguing when Fincher turns his camera loose to investigate the labyrinthine structure. An echoing, empty shell harboring a few moving boxes and beds, the house feels fragmented, like the disconnected rooms and hallways visible on the bank of video monitors inside the panic room. Ironically, the home invasion unifies both the domestic space and, at least by implication, the mother-daughter duo, as Fincher’s low-lying and fluidly moving camera slowly reveals these spatial connections. The camera courses through the dark interiors, sometimes tilting or tracking upward from a position near the floor to frame its subject, recalling Orson Welles’ low angle shots, but with an added, restless energy.
That energy works to the extent that Panic Room creates a world on its own terms and asks its viewers to care about it; but that world revolves around property, not people. Fincher’s obsession with spatial aesthetics so overwhelms the film’s emotional impact that the only response from viewers at the screening I attended was their groans at the end: Taken directly from Kubrick’s The Killing, the scene of Burnham releasing the old man’s bearer bonds into the wind derives emotional power only from the notion that money really does matter most. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t urged its audience to believe otherwise.