Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002)


Jodie Foster (Meg Altman), Kristen Stewart (Sarah Altman), Forest Whitaker (Burnham), Dwight Yoakam (Raoul), Jared Leto (Junior). Screenplay by David Koepp. Directed by David Fincher. Rating: 15. Running time: 112 minutes.

‘Say ‘fuck,’ mom.’ ‘FUCK!’ There’s two lines from Panic Room, as mother Meg Altman and her daughter shout out on loudspeaker to the burglars outside the room they are safe in. ‘It’s disgusting how much I love you’ – there’s another, as Meg apparently tries to show her daughter affection. Lines like these make you immediately suspicious of films, making you wonder if you’re watching some sort of conspiracy that’s trying to look like a genuine thriller but that is actually just one big joke. I’m not too keen on the opening shots of the New York skyline either, that are so cliché as scene setters for Manhattan-based films nowadays that I immediately feel like I’m on autopilot or experiencing déjà vu. Nevertheless, this is Panic Room, and after a mere fifteen minutes playing around with mild character building, the single mum and daughter are in bed for the first night in their grandiose new Upper West Side house, just as three burglars break in through the back door.

If this was a ridiculous coincidence I would have probably given up pretty prompto, but it turns out the burglars had good reason to expect the house to still be empty at this point, and the new owners had moved in early. As it is, the estate agent had explained earlier that the house has extra special security: a steel-walled room with a one-way door, separate phone line, CCTV cameras, food and oxygen supplies hidden as a bedroom cupboard. In the event that such extreme measures must be taken, the owners can hide in here.

And that’s, unsurprisingly, exactly what they do. It’s a little fortunate that for some reason Meg was struggling to shut the panic room before sleeping, and its light distracted her to try once more, at which point she spots what’s going on through the CCTV. It’s also pretty unfortunate that she has a room this sophisticated but the house doesn’t have a damn alarm to alert her when a door gets broken through. What’s the point of that type of security if you don’t know when you’ll need to use it?

Anyway, it’s from here that the film progresses: three thieves, all of typically polarised natures, are after $3m of bonds inexplicably left in an underground safe in the panic room itself. The first thief, Burnham, is the brains and also the one with a conscience and no murder-policy, his copartner Raoul is the source of intel and is ten times rowdier, and then Raoul is the Fargo-esque murderous maniac. A game of cat and mouse ensues that is, it must be admitted, pretty thrilling. The main source of trouble arises from Meg’s daughter being diabetic and her medication being stuck outside. Luckily the thieves go downstairs to argue for a while and, watching on camera, Meg can pop upstairs and grab the needles. But on her way back down, positions flip when they hear her coming.

There are unfortunately a few things, however, that it’s very hard to ignore about Panic Room, besides the (pretty crucial) fact that we never understand the reason the bonds are even there. First amongst these other things is how it never occurs to Meg to go the damn room at the start (it’s her daughter that reminds her it would be a wise idea). Then there’s the small fact that she never thinks to grab her mobile phone from her bedroom whilst the thieves were downstairs until very late on, and then when she does, she ends up also doing amateur electrical work wiring phones herself. It’s also pretty unbelievable that when the thieves themselves end up in the panic room, with her daughter currently undergoing that diabetic fit, her response is to shout ‘fuck you’ at the CCTV cameras which they hold her hostage inside. It’s not like they might kill her, nevermind ignore the medication, or anything like that…

It goes too far for me, though, when Meg ends up swinging a sledgehammer which belts one of the thieves in the face and sends him flying down a flight of stairs. He’s not even knocked unconscious. In fact, he’s back up and ready to do the same to her in ten seconds flat.

Things like this don’t need to happen in Panic Room. There’s enough potential in its loose structure, and enough skill in its floating camerawork up and down the staircases and through the creaky floorboards to indicate the possibility of a good film and thriller. Ultimately, though, it gets carried away in its inconceivable fantasies, and we’re still left wondering why the hell $3m was left dormant there…

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