A divorced woman and her diabetic daughter take refuge in their newly-purchased house’s safe room, when three men break-in, searching for a missing fortune.
Year 1, Day 363
BEFORE: I’m going into the final weekend here and with it brings some more serious films. First up is the David Fincher-directed Panic Room starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart. I’m a big fan of Fincher’s, especially of his thrillers (The Game, Seven) which are some of the best in the genre. Given the response I’ve seen for Panic Room, this seems to be another great one.
AFTER: Alfred Hitchcock is widely known as the master of suspense, a title of which he is very deserving. But I would argue that David Fincher is the modern-day master of suspense and is responsible for some of the best thrillers of this generation. Panic Room is some of the most heart-pounding, fear-inducing stuff I’ve seen in a while. It’s a wonderfully orchestrated film, that while seemingly predictable, has a whole bunch of tricks up its sleeve.
Besides the opening credits, the entire film takes place inside Meg Altman’s (Jodie Foster) newly purchased house which, as you might have guessed, has a top-of-the-line panic room installed on the third floor. Shortly after Meg and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move in, a group of three robbers break into the house looking for millions of dollars locked away in a vault that is, you guessed it, inside the panic room. The entire film is about the robbers trying to get into the panic room and Meg and Sarah trying to keep them out. And every second is more exciting than the last.
The suspense is inherent to the premise but Fincher also embellishes it through some beautifully crafted shots and scenes. Half the work is already done thanks to the story. The setup I described above is dead simple, but it’s also all laid out for us. We know the room has a separate phone line and ventilation system, we know it’s surrounded by three-inch thick steel, and there is only one way in and out. We know the strengths and weaknesses and by seeing both sides (Meg and Sarah in the room and the masterminds outside), it’s very easy to know what to expect. Only the film is one step ahead at all times. Just when you think you know how one attempt to break in will play out, you’re taken in a new direction. You’re always so close to finally being on par with Panic Room, but it always pulls the rug out from under you at the last second. And the reason this works is because of its simplicity (there seems to be a theme lately). Because all the rules are right in front of you, all your energy can go into how they can and cannot be broken instead of figuring out what the rules are.
As for the crafting of certain scenes and shots, I’m really talking about the cinematography and editing. A lot is done with steadicam-esque shots (it’s actually a combination of physical and animated camera movements), which give you a good sense of geography but also provide a great deal of unease (the opening credits also do the same thing). By flowing from one room to the next with no cuts, the expectation is that something is going to happen. You’re waiting for someone or something to move, and when nothing does, that just increases the anxiety levels. One scene in particular comes to mind. I won’t mention the content of the scene but I will mention the techniques used. The scene in question is filmed in slow motion, has smooth camera moves, and also contains relatively few cuts (or at least that’s how it feels). Of all the scenes in Panic Room this is the one where I could feel my heart pounding faster and faster. There were other suspenseful scenes but this one takes the cake because of this unease. And it may seem counter-intuitive - everything is in slow-motion so you have more time to take the details in and see what’s happening. But it’s precisely because you have more time to view things that the suspense builds. You expect a scene like this to be cut quickly, to have it almost flash before your eyes and by drawing it out, giving more time to the shots, your mind begins to race ahead of the film and wants what’s going to happen in two minutes to happen right now.
Panic Room is hands-down one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. Occasionally I mention how a film provides an adrenaline rush (most recently for American Gangster) but none, or at least very few, can compare to Panic Room. It isn’t a perfect film - elements like Meg’s recent divorce, Junior’s (Jared Leto) background, and the boys in blue either could have been incorporated more or not at all - but overall it delivers an extraordinary amount of entertainment that sure to on the edge of your seat.
RATING: 4 out of 5