In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Given its well-worn home invasion equation, 2002’s Panic Room is often regarded as director David Fincher’s most vacuously virtuosic film. Set in a cavernous New York “townstone” (as the Realtors portmanteau it), Panic Room is a tension machine that largely favors logic and practicality over brutality and spectacle. There is still an explosion, but even that is sparked by plausibly low-key real-world activity … and the pleasant outcome of actually lighting co-star Jared Leto on fire. (Praise be to Fincher, unmatched in his deep, abiding commitment to the onscreen obliteration of Leto’s face.)
Of course, Panic Room leaves plenty of real estate for legendary fussbudget Fincher to flex with his computer-assisted fluidity and finesse. As the camera traverses up, down and around the townstone, at one point supernaturally threading the slender margin of a coffee-pot handle, it’s like the Zillow-video equivalent of Fight Club’s opening-credits flight through brain neurons. The result is a supremely entertaining thriller that wrings suspense from emotional and social distress alongside its physical threats. It’s the sort of uncluttered upmarket thriller Fincher needed to make then, too, eager as he was to show studios he could still make Se7en-style money after meager worldwide returns on 1997’s The Game and 1999’s Fight Club. Why else would Fincher balk at marketing messages touting his work on those movies when he (correctly) said this would really appeal more to those who loved Kiss the Girls or The Bone Collector?
Indeed, Panic Room hit in the way Fincher sought, more than tripling its budget in total worldwide returns. Unable to reconcile that Fincher just needed to prove his mettle to Hollywood masters, the filmmaker’s acolytes have undertaken academic overreach to ascribe deeper meaning to Panic Room. Although it’s not as empty-headed as the disposable antecedents Fincher referenced, Panic Room certainly prioritizes what it says on the tin. Whatever contextual consequence he and screenwriter David Koepp conjure is also clearly undercut by a hilariously cozy coda clearly intended to send people home without lingering unease — added only after, you guessed it, test screenings dictated the change. So while Panic Room remains Fincher’s most calculated move across three decades, it’s hardly a craven, meritless cash-in.
The production process also wasn’t without sundry challenges for Fincher to surmount. He originally cast Nicole Kidman as Meg, a depressed divorcée and mother who uses her cache of consolation cash after a collapsed marriage to Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), a philandering pharmaceutical magnate, to buy a 4,200-square-feet New York property. But Kidman left after aggravating an injury suffered while filming Moulin Rouge!; she can still be heard in the film as the telephonic voice of Stephen’s new girlfriend. Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie and Robin Wright were considered for the lead until Jodie Foster’s schedule opened up. Not long after filming commenced, Foster’s pregnancy prompted a pause until she gave birth and put Fincher up against deadlines of strikes by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild.
On top of that, Fincher clashed with director of photography Darius Khondji (with whom he collaborated on Se7en) about the film’s visual presentation; it’s said Fincher initially wanted to film the film’s first half in near-total darkness and planned out two-thirds of the shots before cameras even rolled. After Khondji’s departure, Fincher brought in first-time cinematographer Conrad W. Hall, son of the late, great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and a camera operator on Se7en and Fight Club; Hall shares credit with Khondji here. Perhaps Fincher’s meticulous micromanagement helped, as filming finished without a forced pushback from outside events.
Drawing inspiration from North by Northwest’s introduction, Panic Room superimposes its opening credits over New York skylines — occupying sizable space usually reserved for invading alien spacecraft. Old hat today thanks to the onset of easy drone cinematography, this ominous, omniscient look then stood in stark contrast to the flashiness of Fight Club’s introductory gambit and reflected the straightforward, streamlined story Fincher sought to tell.
Meg (Foster) and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart, in preteen and pre-Twilight androgyny), are touring the towering four-floor townstone with their Realtor, Lydia (Ann Magnuson). It’s so much house. Maybe too much house. “He can afford it,” Lydia insists of Stephen.
The price reflects the pedigree of its previous owner, a rich, reclusive and dead paranoiac whose progeny are squabbling over how to strip his financial carcass. He’s exactly the sort to install a panic room — a contemporary castle keep in which to hide from threats with the assistance of provisions, independent ventilation and phone lines, poured concrete walls, a monolithic wall of video surveillance, and a large steel door that, in Chekhovian fashion, slams shut very fast later on. “This whole thing makes me nervous,” Meg says. “Ever read any Poe?” “No,” Lydia says, “but I loved her last album.” Editor Angus Wall said more than 2,000 setups were filmed twice — once for actual footage and once for video-monitor displays. In an alleged reinforcement of Fincher’s punishing penchant for multiple takes, 100-plus takes were shot of a bag sliding across the floor at a pivotal moment involving the panic room’s steel door.
Screenwriter David Koepp, that maestro of malevolent, money-making tension, economically establishes the outcome of a conversation about whether to buy and the defense mechanisms Meg and Sarah have built to muster through the divorce. “Fuck him,” Sarah says of Stephen, to which Meg tersely replies, “Don’t.” Sarah’s follow-up? “Fuck her, too,” referring to Stephen’s new squeeze. “I agree,” Meg says, “but … don’t.” With tomboyish defiance and Sid Vicious T-shirts, Sarah already fancies herself an independent teenager even as she insists it’s too dark in her room with all the lights off at bedtime. She hides it as an esoteric aesthetic preference rather than an emotional imbalance brought on by the upending of her life. Meg does much the same, soldiering her way through thick panic-room instruction booklets before soaking her sorrows with wine and a bath. These women are holding on to whatever course of confidence they can cling to in a chaotic emotional tailspin — Sarah profanely lashing out in the belief that’s how she can have her say in matters and Meg retreating inward in an effort to resurrect dormant resolve.
Enter three burglars in the dark of night alongside Koepp’s deadly reversal of the genre’s traditional territorial advantage — thieves who know the home better than its tenants. The no-nonsense Burnham (Forest Whitaker), cornrowed doofus Junior (Leto) and unpredictably unstable Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) seek the dead rich man’s treasures. As Meg and Sarah quickly enter the panic room, several problems swiftly manifest: What the robbers want is in there. Burnham is a security expert who orchestrated its installation and can exploit protective workarounds. Sarah’s diabetes medication is elsewhere in the house, a ticking clock the thieves are more than happy to let wind down. Plus, Raoul may just want to kill some people.
While Meg and Sarah scramble for retaliation strategies, Burnham, Junior and Raoul begin pounding away at the property to enter the panic room from the outside. Production designer Arthur Max stages the townstone like a decaying surgical theater, a sterile space bereft of any warm, occupied feeling, while Fincher films his antagonists like three untrained medical wannabes attempting to carve open the house’s body. The sickly lighting scheme feels like the burglars are attempting to excise tumors as much as they’re trying to excavate some riches.
Their half-cocked desperation and ideological differences also render them more dangerous than any show of force, with Fincher and Koepp emphasizing the mutual exclusivity of “in charge” and “in control.” When someone like Junior is the ostensible mastermind, things are bound to go to shit, and Leto embraces every facet of this duplicitous dunderhead’s unctuous behavior. He’s persistent, if not persuasive, about pivoting away from whatever new problem he has introduced. Meanwhile, a balaclava can’t contain the seething, reticent sociopathic rage Yoakam brings to Raoul and his violent treachery. As Junior says “Raoul can totally administer that part,” you shudder at the implications. The typically histrionic Whitaker wisely winds things down as the trio’s quiet beast of socioeconomic burden, at one point silently sauntering past his screaming colleagues to counter their brute-force buffoonery with a considerably lighter touch.
Over time, Meg recognizes Burnham, Junior and Raoul’s constant bickering as a cover of masculine idiocy under which to make necessary moves for her cell phone and Sarah’s medicine. Even men weakened by their comfort like Stephen are OK with burning down their lives, however indirectly; after all, Stephen has the money to rebuild things in the image he prefers. Meg knows desperate men without such luxury won’t hesitate to cleanse their own misdeeds with a fire apt to consume them all. And while Meg exaggerates shame and fragility to keep out cops who’ve been summoned (and save Sarah from harm), there’s an undeniable truth underneath her charade: Meg does not know if she can successfully orchestrate survival amid the accumulating hair-trigger impulses of so many infantilized men — who often cram those closest to them into theoretical panic rooms with threats of their own creation.
Panic Room’s approach to Meg’s adaptability amid so much male rage and guilt, and the gender power dynamics at play, are undercurrents here rather than overtones, and Koepp doesn’t so much indict these issues as merely introduce them. But there’s at least something of thematic consequence beneath the superficial thrill of face-offs with tension that’s otherwise purely situational or compositional — the best of which finds Meg turning the tables on a plan to gas her and Sarah out of the panic room. Although Foster reprised her least-likely-to-kick-ass routine to diminishing returns in films like Flightplan or The Brave One, she endows Meg here with engaging, affecting grace notes of self-imposed emotional distance and doubt.
Of course, all of this builds to a threnodic boil in which one thief’s change of heart winds up saving the day. It also gets him pinched by cops as the bearer bonds he pilfered disappear into a stiff wind, reabsorbed into a pot of posterity that only presents itself to plebes as a mirage. Only here does Panic Room play perfunctorily, with a punitive resolution that resembles a solution to find the lowest common denominator in the thriller genre. This is the ending that tested poorly with audiences, although the $6 million set of the townstone had been dismantled at that point and it would cost $3 million alone to rebuild enough for substantial reshoots. It’s said that Fincher and Wall instead chose less-sympathetic earlier takes of the eventually helpful thief to cloud audiences’ feelings about him by the conclusion. If that’s true, that wasn’t a success, and his sacrifice feels like a mere deus ex machina to a narrative conundrum. You really won’t want to think too much about a pleasant park-bench finale that feels like nothing before it, to a point where you wonder if Fincher said “fine” and had someone else shoot it.
Disappointing as it may be, the conclusion does not curdle an otherwise clean and sleek thriller that generates vertiginous excitement without trading off realistic restraint. Even though today’s movie market isn’t so friendly to such properties, Panic Room has good bones 20 years on.