Sony // 2002 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 3rd, 2004
It was supposed to be the safest room in the house
We are a society on the verge of panic. Events of the last few years, coupled with an ongoing war in the Middle East, means that America feels especially vulnerable right now. The world, which once embraced the capitalist superpower as a bringer of freedom and democracy, now sees this sovereign super-bully as a spoiled child trying to get its way on every piece of the planet's playground. And just like any instance when a regime is perceived as being too big for its britches, the radicals retaliate. The only problem is that most assaults occur under the radar and away from military detection. The actions of terrorists, using the threat of death as the most potent of political speech, create an atmosphere of dread that leads to anxiety. Anxiety left unchecked leads to alarm.
For many Americans, just waiting for the other snuff shoe to drop, there is no such thing as too much preparation. Just like the nuclear scare of the '50s and '60s, survivalists are buying armed forces supplies and building bunkers to hopefully stave off a radical's retribution. But what they are really doing is holding back the panic. Thus as far-fetched and foreign as the concept may seem, a room to eschew the turmoil of our times becomes an almost mandatory means of existence. As Jodie Foster's character, Meg Altman, says in the 2002 thriller Panic Room, someone who thinks he needs a sanctuary to security -- like the titular high-tech trench -- is just asking for someone to force him to use it. She couldn't have been more right.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs, Nell) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have just moved into a luxurious four-story "townstone" (combination brownstone and townhouse) in Manhattan. Meg is recently divorced from her wealthy pharmaceutical-magnate husband and is looking to start a new life in a new residence. This overwhelming mansion is opulent, yet ominous at the same time. Formerly owned by a now-deceased tycoon, it contains a "panic room," a personal vault for protection against criminals and chaos.
Meg finds the aboveground bomb shelter bunker the ultimate in home security silliness. Her child thinks it's cool. Little do they both know that they will need to access this arcane accessory before the night is through. A gang of burglars -- Junior (Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream), Burnham (Forest Whitaker, The Crying Game), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam, Sling Blade) -- with "intimate" knowledge of the house has arrived to rob it. But just like Meg and Sarah, they need the panic room as well. What the criminals are there for resides inside.
David Fincher is the kind of director that Hollywood just detests. No, he is not hated for the strange subject matter he explores (religion in Alien3, moral decay in Se7en, just about everything in Fight Club); or the dark brooding mood of his mini-masterworks. His is more of an esoteric loathing. Fincher is one of the few filmmakers who actually cares what his movies look like, how they play as pieces of cinematic art as well as narrative entertainments. He applies a great deal of effort to the overall design and textural feel of his films, sometimes sacrificing passion for a more cerebral, clinical mood. It's hard to imagine from Fincher's oeuvre that he is really such a cold, calculating filmmaker, but that charge seems to be the main complaint about his style and substance. After the controversy that crowded around Fight Club, Fincher was looking for something small, more of a footnote movie than another existential epic or sci-fi spectacle. He found what he was looking for in David Koepp's homage to home invasion and controlled dread. Panic Room was a throwback to a simpler, more straightforward time in moviemaking, its six-character conventions seeming more play than film-like. But leave it to Fincher to find a way to instill his aesthetic imprint on such a simple formula, and the notion of noir in general. He approached the project from the ground up, building one of the most expansive and expensive film sets ever. For Fincher, Panic Room was not only about the title trench and the people who would populate it. The movie was about the entire idea of the isolation of privilege.
It's amazing that his version of this stalwart cinematic offering was ever greenlit. Panic Room is not the type of movie Tinseltown makes anymore, perhaps because they are too narrow-minded to see how a one-set exercise in suspense could actually work for the modern, jaded moviegoer. Back in the glory days of the studio system, true geniuses of the genre like Hitchcock (Rear Window, Rope) and Jacques Tourneur (1942's Cat People) knew how to play a single location like a tightly strung violin, squeezing every last bit of dread and anxiety out of the basic premise and premises. But after a while, the whole thriller genre was turned over to the B-movie mavens, people looking to fill second-tier productions with something other than horror or monster movies. It wasn't until the discovery of the box office blockbuster, that the thriller was reborn. During the '70s and '80s, there were no better examples of suspense in excess as in the works of Brian DePalma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Master Steve's direct protégé Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future). But actual nail-biting tension is something of a lost art among the newest members of Hollywood's hacks. Seems that if you merely jump cut around an action scene, something seat-of-the-pants is supposed to occur. At least Panic Room proves that style can still create something stellar as well as scary.
At its heart, this minor movie is a paean to countless low rent titles from past decades. Inside this meticulous maze of amazing set design you can see hints of Lady in a Cage, Desperate Hours, Wait Until Dark, and dozens of other "innocents vs. invaders" narratives. Fincher understands that the dynamic between the combatant individuals is what's most important -- one group's ignorance of the danger around them pitted against the unstoppable greed/need of others to achieve some goal. Panic Room takes this formula and adds all manner of ulterior motives, underlying issues, and unexpected elements. The house itself becomes a trap, the panic room turning into a dead end instead of a safety net. The long hallways, massive living spaces, and ancient structural decay suggest a haunted mansion on steroids, a spooky dark place waiting to spring its surprise with craven cruelty. Each of the burglars represents an aspect of the criminal subconscious, crime as a composition of elements. Junior is all talk and very little action. Raoul is all action and very little talk. In the middle is Burnham, a capable felon, but also not willing to simply write off a human life with the ease that Raoul shows. But he's also not likely to quit like the weak-kneed Junior. Indeed, if anything, Panic Room becomes a battle between Meg and Burnham, a contest between two rational people who are asked to discover the limits of their own potential antisocial behavior. The answer is part of what makes Panic Room so thrilling.
Yet the film is also its own creature -- a weird, perverted take on the standard suspense meshed with an obsessive/compulsive attention to detail. Fincher loves the "look" of things: the mechanism, the human organ, the grace in nature. For him, Panic Room is a vision of technology gone awry and individual anxiety made material. As the four-story monstrosity of a home is a symbol of money gone mad (or hoping to heal all wounds), all of our characters are equally imperfect. Some have diseases, either physical or emotional. Some are victims of divorce, or the cause of it. Still others are spoiled citizens of entitlement, able to look beyond human compassion and charity to rob their dead relative (and the rest of the family) blind.
Actually, Panic Room has more interpersonal suspense than Rube Goldberg mechanical dread. We get a couple of scenes where dangers are dished out (and retribution gained) in clockwork examples of threat in precision motion, but more times than not what we are really worried about is what these characters will do next. The script for Panic Room may seem straightforward and slightly formulaic, but the story really centers on the concept of human integrity. How far all these people will go to achieve their goals is questioned over and over, making for an internal sense of suspense that enhances the propane attacks and sledgehammer fisticuffs. If the individuals locked in this game of cat and house were single-dimensional stiffs, the movie itself would be equally bad. But they are not. And this is why Panic Room works and works well.
It's also important in a movie in which plot mechanics play a more important part than personality that strong actors are available to cement the seriousness. Fincher's cast in Panic Room consists of so much mindblowingly excellent talent that the film can sometimes feel like Shakespearean thespians tackling Shock Theater. Jodie Foster, one of the finest actresses working today, brings a great deal of gravity and seriousness to a role that could have easily turned helpless and soft. Matched with Kristen Stewart as her equally capable child, this duo of damsels is in anything but distress. In many ways they make the meandering methods of the bumbling burglars seem even more stupid and slipshod. Cast as the criminals, Forest Whitaker is nothing short of brilliant as the desperate security expert resorting to crime to fill a cavity in his personal life (divorce and a custody battle are discussed). He manages to be both menacing and empathetic at the same time. Jared Leto, as Junior, is often in jeopardy of having his cornrows upstage him. Given the thankless role of being the boob for many of the mishaps that happen to this gang that couldn't rob straight, Junior's greedy relative spiel is the one weak link in the otherwise solid casting. But if anything, Dwight Yoakam gives the bravest, most bravado performance as Raoul, the unassuming thief who secretly holds a mass murderer's heart. His amoral corruption of character lends Panic Room the necessary menace to make the bad guys worse and the good guys worth rooting for.
You can count Fincher and his magnificent set as well-honed characters also. This is his film completely, never once really hinting at the efforts of past masters. Sure, the film is influenced by the work of others, but Fincher has the ability to translate all those ripoffs into his own language so that they seem completely organic and part of his own visual whole. From the first time a camera passes effortlessly through a floor to a tracking shot that seems to encompass the whole house and the dynamic of the movie in six minutes, Panic Room becomes an extension of Fincher's film philosophy, an ideal that imagines that the everyday world is far more ferocious and frightening than a manufactured universe of monsters and angels. As in Fight Club, Fincher seems to be arguing that covetousness on either side of the fence has its own pitfalls. By making the house, with its antique feel and modern modes of protection, feel like the hermetically sealed setting for a final accounting of all man's materialistic foibles, Panic Room does occasionally transcend the basic "family vs. fiends" thriller to say something far more meaningful about personal priorities and inner strength. Showing that you are willing to defend yourself and your loved ones from any manner of threat is at the heart of this film. Indeed, by proving how ineffectual the panic room is for safety and security, it shows that people can only rely on themselves when such a situation arises. Fairly highfalutin for a simple suspense thriller.
When it first came to DVD, Panic Room was presented in a Superbit version that was (supposedly) high on audio and video fidelity and (demonstrably) very weak on bonus content. So when considering the massive amount of extra material contained in this three-disc special edition, one can only envision a kind of pyramid. Sitting at the very top is the movie itself, offered in a pristine, near-perfect example of image and sound. Then supporting this awesome apex is a huge foundation of documentaries, commentaries, featurettes, multi-angle offerings, and behind-the-scenes sneak peeks. When combined, they create this monument to moviemaking, this genuine wonder of the DVD world. While not all the cinematic surplus is spectacular, the vast majority showcases the massive amount of time and effort that went into what seems like a standard thriller.
As for the pictures and pitch, both are reference quality. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image is so impressive you'll feel like you're watching an animated work by one of the great modern masters of painting. Fincher loves to fiddle with the color schemes of his films and Panic Room is no different. It is a wholly original vision for an urban thriller. And the sound is magnificent. Fincher allows the noises of the street, of technology and machinery to paint an ambient soundscape of ever-rising dread. Toss in Howard Shore's subtle steals from Bernard Hermann and incredibly evocative channel usage (the 5.1 mix is magnificent) and you've got the perfect balance of look and listen, making Panic Room a spectacular digital home theater presentation.
And then, the bonus material kicks in. Spread out over all three discs, the sheer amount of extras is mindblowing. We begin with three audio commentaries, each one offering a different take on the film and the process of making it. The first commentary consists of Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, and Dwight Yoakam, recorded separately but somehow seeming to respond to each other's insights. Foster explains how she approached being "second choice" for the film. Whitaker is a wealth of knowledge about the physical demands of the movie, while Yoakam defends himself from charges that he is accident-prone. Their track is the anecdotal look at the film, the gossipy backstory on the making of the movie. Next up is the technical end, handled with a nerd-like exacting attitude by director Fincher. Always caught up in the mechanics of what he was trying to accomplish onscreen, the filmmaker frets over missed moments, inspirations that couldn't be pulled off, and the idea of building a four-story house and a portion of a Manhattan street inside a California soundstage. Though a little dry at times, Fincher is still engaging and full of information. The best, though, is saved for last as writer David Koepp is paired with the legendary screen scribe William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man) for a no-holds barred examination of the final film. Goldman takes charge most of the time, asking about casting choices and plot elements, and questioning Koepp's process in creating the story. It's a hilarious and very educational trip through the thoughts behind the film and its characters. Koepp acquits himself nicely, never once letting the cantankerous creator get the best of him. This final feature ends Disc One on a very high point.
On the "townstone" blueprint menu for the DVD, Disc Two is labeled Pre-Production and Production, and those are the themes of the bonus material presented there. When you advance to the Pre-Production section, you have your choice of one of two entries: "Prep" or "Previsualization." "Prep" leads you to a choice of featurettes, one discussing the coordinating of the lighting with cinematographer Conrad Hall ("The Testing Phase") and another involving Fincher, his crew and a safecracking expert, going over the finer details of breaking and entering ("Safe-cracking School"). Under the "Previsualization," you have four choices, almost all of which discuss the Previs system of computerized storyboarding. Long in use by big-budget extravaganzas, Fincher walks us through its use in Panic Room ("Creating the Previs") and how it came to correct (and create) several problems with the blocking and shot selection in the film. Next we actually see a Previs piece of Panic Room ("Previs Demo") and it is easy to see how the process could help "visualize" a sequence. Next up is a little joke ("Habitrail Film") in which the animated actors in the Previs material are shown, in time lapse, running through the initial action in the film like tiny caged pets. Finally, you can look at several sequences from the film, in either Previs or standard storyboard, by using the "angle" key on your remote. This entire half-hour of highlights ("Multi-Angle Featurette") can be viewed with commentary (by storyboard artist Peter Ramsey or Previs animator Colin Green) or raw/final sound.
But that's still not all on Disc Two. "Shooting Panic Room" is a 52-minute walk through of the trials and tribulations that went into creating this film. Panic Room was fraught with troubles, both personal (Nicole Kidman, originally cast as Meg had to drop out; Fincher fired his first cinematographer, longtime friend Darius Khondji) and technical. It's amazing to watch Fincher walk through his massive set (which we watch being built via a mesmerizing time lapse sequence) and pick out all the minor things that are wrong. The cast finds time to discuss the film (usually offering something they later expound upon in the commentary), and we get to see long sequences, without narrative, of the movie being made. Fincher is a multiple take nut and the stories of 70 or 100 takes are tantalizing...and terrifying. From the final effects work, to trying to figure out how to make a gun fall just where the director wants it to, this documentary is a marvelous look at the assembly of this mechanically complex movie. The final feature on Disc Two is a look at the "Makeup Effects" on the film. Featuring the funny, fresh team of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., we learn of the rubber fingers crafted for Dwight Yoakam, the size and severity of bullet holes in Fincher's word, and the tongue-in-cheek lack of respect the men feel for the filmmaker and vice versa. While not all that detailed, it's still a very funny look at the amount of effort required to realize many of the film's minor makeup moments.
Disc Three, entitled Post-Production, is another treasure trove of additional treats. Divided into sections for Visual Effects, Sound Design, Sequence Breakdowns, Scoring, Digital Intermediate and Super 35 Technical Explanation, each section has its own interesting aspects. Effects supervisor Kevin Haug, along with coordinator Leslie McMinn, walks us through 20 (20!) featurettes regarding the movie magic in Panic Room. We look at how the marvelous main titles came about ("Main Titles") how several incredible shots were staged ("Thru Bedroom Door," "The Skylight," "The Big Shot," "Through the Railing"), the meticulousness of other visuals ("Giant Dust," "Thru Wall and Floor," "The Hose") and how the fire effects were realized ("Propane Gas," "The Explosion," "Arm on Fire," "CGI Propane Tank"). Haug also discusses Fincher's fixation on style ("Slow Motion") the subtle use of computer graphics ("The Flashlight," "Safe Shavings/Digital Squibbs," "CGI Gun and Cell Phone," "Flutter Bonds and CGI Leaves") and some difficult visual experiments ("X-Ray Floor," "Headwounds"). Moving over to the "Sound Design" section, we are treated to an interview with aural atmosphere creator Ron Klyce as he discusses the natural components and influence of Brian Eno on his work in the film. We then visit Stephen Nakamura at his console at Technicolor, where he shows how "Digital Intermediate" allowed Fincher to correct color issues and tweak the visual tone of his film without expensive optics. "Super 35 Technical Explanation" goes hand in hand with this feature.
And we're still not done. Sequence Breakdown is a sprawling section, a chance to see four separate scenes ("Phone Jack," "End of Junior," "Hammer Time," and "Burnham Surrounded") from start (script) to near finish (rough dailies). Here's how it works: you have the option of reading the script (which you can't page through, so be warned), looking at the storyboard and video tests from the scene, you can watch behind the scenes clips of Fincher and his cast in action or view the footage shot in daily form. In combination, one witnesses the amount of time, effort, and talent it took to realize many of the moments in the film. Our final how-to section focuses on the "Score." Using the multi-angle aspect again, you can see Howard Shore conducting his music for the film over four key parts ("Main Titles," "Selling the House," "The Phone Call," "Altman") and look at different shots of the orchestra. There is also an option to view the material, picture-within-picture style, over the actual film. With literally hours of information to react to and interact with, Columbia TriStar's treatment rivals that of Fox and Fight Club, another famous special edition of a Fincher title. This filmmaker is rapidly becoming the king of the DVD medium.
It's pretty much common knowledge that Jodie Foster was not the first choice to play the lead in Panic Room. Nicole Kidman was hired and had played the role of Meg Altman for several weeks before an injury sidelined her participation. Yet all we see of this statuesque beauty is one 15-second scene in the documentary about the making of the movie. Her contribution to this film was more substantial than a brief glimpse in a short sequence. While it's possible that money or contractual issues kept the material out, it was/is an important aspect of Panic Room's development as a project and as a result, keeps the monumental amount of bonus content from being totally complete. Kidman's work, her deleted performance, or onset scenes should have been included here.
It's interesting to note, in the end, how little of Panic Room actually revolves around the technology and the specialization of the safe bunker itself. Oh sure, the treasure the men seek is hidden within its confinements, and the main characters hide from the pursuers behind the supposedly secure steel walls. But what Panic Room really reveals are the limits of human constitution, questioning how far one will go to overcome adversity. Ever since the tragedy of the World Trade Center attack, the answer to that query has been disheartening. It appears most people will simply hide, create a concrete cell of protection and live within their own interpersonal panic rooms. They will down untold numbers of prescription antibiotics on the slightest threat of an anthrax scare and procure state-of-the-art alarms to warn them of incoming trouble. But they won't fight back. That is for someone else. It is their duty, those either conscripted to do so or bravely volunteering to serve.
Panic Room hints that inside this cocooned world of comfortable isolation and hermetical sealing, we are willing to play sitting duck for whatever criminal element wants to exploit us. And there is drama in said scenario. But isn't it much more ambiguous, and therefore suspenseful, when the safe room barrier is dropped and people are forced to confront each other face to face, with only their wits and physicality about them? When the panic door is open and all bets are off, we finally get to see the real face of people -- the face of fear. Panic Room is a movie that plays on this dread. While far from a classic, it is still a stellar piece of filmmaking.
Panic Room is found not guilty and is free to go. While this court acknowledges the sticky issue about double-dipping, any fan of this film, David Fincher, or moviemaking in general would be hard pressed to find fault with this three-disc DVD set.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
* Top 100 Discs: #32
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Director David Fincher
* Audio Commentary by Actors Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, and Dwight Yoakam
* Audio Commentary by Writer David Koepp and Special Guest
* Six Featurettes on the Pre-Production Phase
* Interactive Previsualization
* Documentary: Shooting Panic Room
* Featurette: Makeup Effects
* Sequence Breakdowns
* 21 Documentaries and Featurettes on Visual Effects
* Featurette: On Sound Design with Sound Designer Ren Klyce
* Digital Intermediate and Other Featurettes on the Post-Production Phase
* Multi-Angle Featurette of a Scoring Session Conducted by Howard Shore