The expansive, sprawling nature of FIGHT CLUB’s story meant that director David Fincher spent a great deal of the film’s production in a van traveling to and from the film’s four hundred locations. Naturally, he wished to downscale his efforts with his next project and find a story that took place in a single location. He found it in a screenplay by David Koepp called PANIC ROOM, inspired by true stories of small, impenetrable fortresses that New York City’s wealthy elite were building for themselves inside their homes. Because the story lent itself so well to an overtly Hitchockian style of execution and form, Fincher approached PANIC ROOM (2002) as an exercise in pure genre, refusing to “elevate” the material with the infusion of potent allegory and subtextual thematics like he had done with FIGHT CLUB or SE7EN (1995). The film is expertly constructed in a way that only Fincher could have envisioned, with top-notch filmmaking on par with any of his best work. However, PANIC ROOMwas somewhat lost in the noise of 2002’s other releases, and thus doesn’t enjoy the same cherished status of Fincher’s higher-profile work (despite the argument that it should).
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a recently divorced single mom, looking for a new home in Manhattan for her and her young daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). They are shown a beautiful, expansive brownstone complete with cathedral ceilings, original crown molding, and a panic room—a hidden concrete room outfitted with survival and communications tech and designed as a refuge in the event of a home invasion. Despite Meg’s misgivings that the property is simply too much house for the two of them, she buys it anyway. As Meg and Sarah sleep during their first night in the house, three burglars—Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) break inside. Meg and Sarah are awakened by the commotion, and instinctually barricade themselves in the panic room. Any assurance of safety soon vanishes when Meg realizes that she never hooked up the panic room’s dedicated phone line, along with the revelation that what the burglars are after—millions of dollars in US bonds—is hidden in a floor safe underneath their feet. What ensues is a suspenseful, contained thriller that would make Hitchcock green with envy as Meg and Sarah fend off this trio of unpredictable male intruders who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
Jodie Foster is compelling as lead heroine Meg Altman, a fiercely maternal woman whose initial mild-mannered-ness gives way to a resourceful, cunning bravery. Interestingly, Foster replaced original actress Nicole Kidman, who had to leave the production due to the aggravation of an earlier injury (she still has a voice cameo as Meg’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend). Despite the short notice, Foster exhibited enormous dedication to the role by giving up her chair on the Cannes Film Festival Jury as well as working through the pregnancy of her second child. Kristen Stewart, who was only eleven at the time of filming, turns in a great performance as Sarah, Meg’s punk-y daughter with a cynical attitude and intelligence beyond her years. Stewart provides a nice balance to Meg’s refined femininity with a rough, tomboyish and androgynous quality (something which Foster had herself at Stewart’s age). In making the character of Sarah a diabetic, Stewart is able to become an active participant in the suspense and engage us on a personal, visceral level.
The three burglars prove just as compelling as our female protagonists due to a complex combination of values and virtues that causes conflict between them. The most accessible of the three is Forest Whitaker as Burnam, a professional builder of panic rooms and a sensitive, honorable man who projects a warm, authoritative presence. This complex physicality is essential to the success of the role, and Fincher’s choice of Whitaker, who he previously knew not as an actor but as a fellow director at Propaganda Films, is an inspired one. Burnham is compelled not by greed but by obligation to his family, meaning that while he’s misguided in his attempts to right his wrongs, he’s not beyond saving. His antithesis is Raoul, a mysterious, volatile man who quickly asserts himself as the group’s dangerous wild card. Raoul is played by Dwight Yoakam, a country singer turned actor who injects a great deal of menace to the proceedings. Jared Leto, who previously appeared in Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB in a small role, benefits from the expanded screen presence that the character of Junior affords him. Junior is the self-designated leader of the operation, but he quickly finds control of the situation slipping from his grasp as the night unfolds. Leto finds an inspired angle into what would otherwise be the stock hotheaded, impatient villain archetype by turning Junior into a trust-fund kid who’s ill-advised attempts at giving himself some edge (take those atrocious dreadlocks, for instance) only lead to the hardened criminals he’s trying to impress taking him less seriously.
PANIC ROOM, like all of Fincher’s pre-ZODIAC (2007) feature work, was filmed in the Super 35mm film format. While shot open-matte in the full-frame Academy aspect ratio, the finished film is presented on the widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio so that Fincher had total freedom to compose the frame as he saw fit. He did it this way, as opposed to shooting in the anamorphic aspect ratio, because he apparently hates the limited lens choices and shallow depth of field that plagues the anamorphic process. Fincher hired Darius Khondji, who had previously shot SE7EN, but Khondji left the production two weeks into the shoot due to creative differences with Fincher’s meticulously planned and extensively pre-visualized approach (which stifled any on-set spontaneity). Cinematography duties were then passed on to Conrad W. Hall (not to be confused with his father, the legendary Conrad Hall who shot ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) and COOL HAND LUKE (1967)). Hall Junior proves adept at replicating Fincher’s signature aesthetic via a high-contrast lighting scheme and a cold color palette whereby traditionally warm incandescent bulbs glow a pale yellow and the harsh fluorescents of the panic room take on a blue/teal cast. Fincher’s mise-en-scene is dotted with practical lights, creating an underexposed, moody image that is bolstered by a “no light” approach—meaning that Fincher and Hall sought as much darkness as they could get away with, primarily using the extremely soft light afforded by kino-flo rigs.
A highlight of PANIC ROOM’s look is a constant, fluid, and precise camera that glides and floats through the house, as if unfettered by the limitations of human operation. This technique is achieved through the combination of the Technocrane and CGI that stitches multiple shots into one, seamless move. The best example of this in the film is the virtuoso long take that occurs as the burglars break into the house. We first see them arrive, and swoop through the house as they try various entry points, all the while taking the time to show us Meg and Sarah asleep and unaware of the impending danger. This shot would have been impossible to achieve before the rise of digital effects, a revolution that Fincher helped usher in due to his familiarity with the process from his days at ILM. Because of his natural grasp on digital filmmaking tech, he is able to turn this incredibly complicated shot into a “thesis” money shot that condenses his entire visual approach to the film into a single moment while effortlessly establishing the geography of the house and orienting us for what’s to come.
As I mentioned before, the extensive location shoots and setups required by FIGHT CLUB resulted in Fincher desiring a singular, contained scenario for his next project. In developing PANIC ROOM, he realized he wanted to create the entire house as a studio set (a la Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954)) so that he could exert complete control. Toward that end, he hired SE7EN’s production designer, Arthur Max, to construct the full-featured house inside a large soundstage as one continuous structure whose walls could be flown out to accommodate a camera gliding through the set. Max’s work here is nothing less than masterful, as nary a seam of the complicated construction exposes itself throughout the entire film. The same could be said of the fluid edit by Fincher’s regular editor James Haygood, working in collaboration with Angus Wall. Wall had previously edited bits and pieces of Fincher’s commercial work, as well as the opening credits to SE7EN, but PANIC ROOM is Wall’s first feature editing job for Fincher, and his success here has to led to continued employment in Fincher’s later features.
After a brief hiatus taken during the production of FIGHT CLUB, composer Howard Shore returns to Fincher’s fold with a brassy, old-school score that oozes intrigue and foreboding. During this time, Shore was consumed with scoring duties for Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, so PANIC ROOM was an assignment taken on precisely because of its low musical demands. As it turns out, Shore’s work in PANIC ROOM is generally regarded as some of his best and most brooding. The score is complemented by a superb sound mix by Fincher’s regular sound designer, Ren Klyce.
When done right, genre is a potent conduit for complex ideas and allegory with real-world implications. PANIC ROOM is essentially about two women fending off three male home invaders, but it is also about much more: the surveillance state, income equality, the switching of the parent-child dynamic…. the list goes on. A visionary director like Fincher is able to take a seemingly generic home invasion thriller and turn it into an exploration of themes and ideas. For instance, PANIC ROOMaffords Fincher the opportunity to indulge in his love for architecture, letting him essentially design and build an entire house from scratch. The type of architecture that the house employs is also telling, adopting the handsome wood and crown molding of traditional brownstone houses found on the East Coast. Architecture also serves an important narrative purpose, with the story incorporating building guts like air vents and telephone lines as dramatic hinging points that obstruct our heroes’ progress and build suspense. Again, Fincher employs low angle compositions to reveal the set ceiling in a bid to communicate the location’s “real-ness” as well as instill a sense of claustrophobia.
Fincher’s fascination with tech is woven directly into the storyline, which allows him to explore the dramatic potential of a concrete room with a laser-activated door and surveillance cameras/monitors. The twist, however, is that despite all this cutting-edge technology (circa 2002, provided), both the protagonists and the antagonists have to resort to lo-fi means to advance their cause. Another aesthetic conceit that Fincher had been playing with during this period is the idea of micro-sized objects sized up to a macro scale. In FIGHT CLUB, this could be seen with the shot of the camera pulling back out of a trashcan, its contents seemingly as large as planets. Fincher echoes this conceit in PANIC ROOM via zooming in on crumbling concrete until it’s as big as a mountain, diving through the gas hose as the burglars pump propane gas into the panic room, and jumping inside the glass enclosure of a flashlight to see a close up of the bulb spark on and off.
Fincher ties this visual idea in with another signature of his films—imaginative opening credits sequences. With PANIC ROOM, he places his collaborators’ names against the steel and glass canyons of New York City, as if the letters themselves were as big as skyscrapers and had always been a part of their respective structures. As interesting of an idea it is, I’m not sure the large scope that these credits imply fully gels with a movie that’s so self-contained and insular. And finally, the punk/nihilistic flair that hangs over Fincher’s filmography has a small presence in Kristen Stewart’s androgynous punk stylings, as well as the appearance of The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious on one of her t-shirts.
Fincher’s desire to exert total control of the shoot via meticulous set-building and extensive computer previsualization ended up working against him, making for a long, strenuous shoot bogged down by technical difficulties and slow advancement. However, the effort was worth it—PANIC ROOM became a box office hit upon its release, receiving generally positive reviews. As a lean, mean thriller, PANIC ROOM is incredibly exhilarating and well-made; perhaps even one of the best home invasion films ever made. More importantly, PANIC ROOM would be the last feature that Fincher ever shot on celluloid film (as of this writing). The 2000’s would bring the swift rise of digital filmmaking, a technology that Fincher—as a noted perfectionist and control-freak—would swiftly embrace. PANIC ROOM closes the book on the first phase of Fincher’s feature career (marked by gritty, subversive fare shot on film), heralding the arrival of a new phase that would solidify Fincher’s legacy amongst our most prestigious filmmakers.
PANIC ROOM is currently available on Netflix streaming and standard definition DVD from Columbia Pictures.
Produced by: Cean Chaffin, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp, Gavin Polone
Written by: David Koepp
Director of Photography: Conrard W. Hall, Darius Khondji