Some films begin not from a plot premise or desire to portray certain characters, but from a bright idea about the cinematic possibilities of a certain space or place. Movies have always kept close tabs with trends and developments in architecture, urban planning and the real estate market. Think of all the films about communal life in high-rise apartments, or all those action movies with their climactic set-pieces in airports or train stations.
Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster, is a thriller that preys on our fears and anxieties regarding domestic space. It's a nightmarish inversion of all those television lifestyle programs devoted to "better homes and gardens", because here the large, expensive New York home bought by Foster for herself and her daughter quickly becomes not only a fortress but a prison. And at its centre is a prison within the prison, which is either going to save or sink this small family – a high-tech "panic room", designed as a handy refuge in case burglars come calling in the night.
Director David Fincher, best known for Seven (1995), revels in his chance to endlessly map and re-map the diverse rooms and levels of this house that is disturbed once three shady characters, played by Forrest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam, get in.
Panic Room borrows from two forms of psychological thriller. On one level, it is recognisably in the modern tradition of what is called the intimacy thriller – films like Unlawful Entry (1992) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), where a comfortable middle-class family home is invaded by a lone, vengeful psychotic character, often in a stealthy way. Intimacy thrillers play on ambiguity: its families are often unstable to begin with, the invaders might have very good socio-political reasons for their grudge, and strange, perverse bonds can develop between the victims and their victimisers.
Panic Room also looks back to an older, tidier Hollywood tradition – films such as The Desperate Hours (1955) or Key Largo (1948), where a gang of bad guys occupy a home and terrorise its occupants, while they either hide out or search for some hidden treasure. In this model, the family unit is more conventionally happy and stable; the plot focuses on how the villains unravel as they bicker and turn against each other, and on the unexpected strength and heroism of the besieged citizens.
But, for me, the film is unsatisfying as either type of thriller. Fincher leans too heavily on standard clichés of urban alienation, and courage under impossible odds. Basically, I suspect he's too in love with the digital tricks that allow wildly impossible camera movements, overwhelming the story and its characters, as in the scene where Foster and her daughter try to make contact with a sleeping neighbour.
But problems set in for Fincher with that initial concept of space and place. How much can be done, dramatically and cinematically, with five people in an empty house and a panic room? The plot contrives various reversals of menacer and menaced, and introduces a few external elements like the police and Foster's ex-husband, but the tension keeps dissipating just when it should be building. The film's writer and co-producer, David Koepp, worked on some of Brian De Palma's best films (like Carlito's Way,1993), and I couldn't help but remember those fine movies during the slow-motion scene where Foster makes a dive for the mobile phone just outside her fortress.
There are some undeniably exciting moments in Panic Room, a few shots at black humour, and also some attempt at pathos with Forest Whitaker's character, a criminal despite himself, with non-violent intentions and an air of melancholy. But what's definitely missing is the hard, disturbing edge of a movie like Cape Fear, in either its 1991 Robert De Niro or 1962 Robert Mitchum version.
© Adrian Martin April 2002