Panic Room (USA, 2002)

panic-room-posterDirected by: David Fincher. So after recently re-watching Citizen Kane for some reason, and after reading the first (very long) chapter of the famous book by Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (the recent 4th edition), and feeling compelled to take David Fincher seriously, as someone whose output I’d already seen 50-75% of by just casually watching, but never made an effort to check up on, like Ford or Welles or Hitchcock, it struck me (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) that Fincher is really just the modern-day, turbo, extreme, self-reflexive incarnation of Orson Welles, and that Fincher’s seemingly unique brand of neo-noir and self-conscious camera work is perhaps nothing but an extension of Welles, aided by modern sensitivities and technologies to take Welles’ high modernism and make it a modern kind of very, very, very, very high modernism, that threatens to, but never actually does, break out into unabashed postmodernism. (And that might just be my longest sentence yet, so I’m sorry for all of you who had to read it.) I had unconsciously avoided Panic Room like the plague when it came out, and for many years after it came out, because it seemed so popular, and in 2002 I was already extremely pretentious (for someone who owned a VHS copy of The Fast and the Furious). I mean, it was on the MTV movie awards! It can’t actually be good! But, now that I’ve seen it, I can see why it was so successful, and I can even really admire it. After all, I really like Fight Club, and Se7en (and I thought that Alien 3 was way better than Alien 2), and even though I wasn’t nuts about Benjamin Button, Dragon Tattoo, or Social Network, it struck me that my lack of enthusiasm for the script of each was only aided by the sleek and distinct visual sophistication of David Fincher.

Before I go too far, I’ll get this out of the way: Panic Room is not, ultimately, a great movie, and it’s all because of the ending. Not the climax, where the good-hearted Forest Whitaker blows his chance to escape with the money so that he can do the right thing and kill Dwight Yoakam and save the family, only to be caught by the police at the last minute. That’s just great stuff, and actually it comes off as very Classic Hollywood in the sense that it’s predictable, but it’s satisfying, and it’s kind of an O. Henry ending for the poor, good-hearted crook (who, really, is kind of the interest center of the movie, over and above the mother and daughter). But no, I mean the ending ending, where the mother and daughter sit on a park bench outside, in the sunshine, and peacefully do the crossword together, giving no hint that this traumatic incident was anything other than an utterly temporary aberration on their otherwise blissful and problem-free all-American lives. That final shot really struck me as a studio executive add-on that Fincher had no choice but to follow because of contractual details. And besides all of this, I’m still not sold on the unassailable fact that Jodie Foster is a fantastic actor (beyond her precedent-setting turn in Taxi Driver, of course), but I’m not going to Streep off about it today.

As for the movie itself: I was immediately struck by the opening credits sequence. Again, influenced by what I’m reading, that Kolker book spent a lot of time on Bonnie and Clyde and the French New Wave, etc, and the big change from the time when the tacit assumption of a Hollywood movie was to efface the movie-making process entirely, to sustain the illusion that the film world you’re seeing is “real”, at least within its own context, and that it’s not a manufactured film world. Fast forward to the modern day, and this movie, with its credit sequence which, right at the very beginning of the film, shows you in very conspicuous and unambiguous terms that the narrative that you are about to be pulled into is a series of artificially constructed images made from computer technology, from movie trickery, from choices. And luckily for us, Fincher infuses his hyper-Fincherism onto the rest of the film too, making what would be an otherwise respectable home invasion thriller with some great acting in it, into a visually striking version of all that. And as compulsively watchable as the film is with his trademark Fincherian darkness and his excessive, almost self-parodying use of unmotivated, self-conscious camera movements to embellish the action on screen, it always feels one or two steps away from being ridiculous. And as impressive as the novelty is, I was asking myself: “Do we really need to see the camera go up the pipes, through the building and out the vent at the other side? What purpose is that serving? Why would Fincher make such a big deal out of demonstrating his godlike omniscience over these characters and their story when he’s simultaneously showing us that everything he has omniscience over is a conspicuously manufactured film image? And more, what effect does that have on us watching the movie?” So at the very least, this movie gives me a lot of great stuff to chew on. This is, in many ways, Fincher’s most Fincherian movie, it’s his Liberty Valance, his Vertigo, his (and I haven’t seen enough Welles to make this comparison but I’ll do it anyway) Touch of Evil. But then again, I haven’t seen the other 25% of his movies, so we’ll see.


5 responses to “Panic Room (USA, 2002)

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