We happened to catch Panic Room on TV3 last night. It’s interesting to watch in retrospect, considering that David Fincher was between the two high watermarks of his career to date (se7en and Zodiac – we can discuss The Curious Case of Benjamin Button later). It’s interesting to see Fincher play with the thriller genre in a much less radical way than he did with either of the films that sandwich it. What we’re left with might not necessarily be groundbreaking, but it is solidly entertaining.
Home invasion is scary. It’s a primal fear – perhaps more primal than the fears of knife-wielding maniacs or supernatural terror. Somebody comes in to your house and makes you a captive in what should be your castle. When I was growing up overseas we had a break-in – I am too young to remember it – but it immediately led my parents to move to a more secure area and changed the way that they lived while over there. It is the kind of thing that leaves deep wounds and is genuine terrifying – because it could happen to you.
COming so soon after the attacks of September 11th, it’s hard not to see the echoes of political commentary in the production – though it would have been long underway by that fateful day. The impact of being attacked on your own home turf has a sombring effect and one that it is hard to know how to react to – even if you are safe. Even if you are watching these strange men through video tape.
I’m not sure there’s an overt political commentary included in the film, but it does lurk around the edges – afraid to intrude. What occupies the centre of the film is an intelligent and well-considered game of cat-and-mouse. For film set within rather narrow confines (it’s pretty much all within a house and – at that – a hall and a stairwell), it is wonderfully creative. It plays with the tropes of the thriller genre (the faceless thug, the not-too-bothered police officer investigating a call, the nearby oblivious neighbour), never quite conforming but instead acknowledging them and trying to apply them in an interesting way.
Fincher sets up the action scenes and set pieces with ease (the movie is almost one big set piece). He uses his relatively small cast very well, and his camera work is flashy but not aggressively so. There are several wonderful tracking shots that mirror the theme of observation and security that runs through the film and he manages to keep tension simmering over a two-hour runtime. The CGI is glaring in parts (you’ll know it when you see it), but was fairly impressive at the time. The script is smart and articulate – it’s nice to hear robbers who don’t talk in cliché and are relatively genre aware.
The performances are superb. We don’t see enough of Jodie Foster, to be honest, and most of her output doesn’t match the standard she sets for herself. Here we see her in a concerned mother role (one she would emulate in Flight Plan), but it’s new and fresh enough to keep us interested. There’s enough repressed anger and aggression in the character to make her compelling and Foster manages to find realy chemistry with a young Kristen Stewart, who is impressive in what would normally be a fairly straight-forward role. It’s a shame that it’s taken her this long to develop her career further, but we look forward to her post-Twilight successes.
The not-so-merry band of home invaders are played quite well by a string of recognisible faces. Jared Leto does spoilt and immature very well (he always has) and a masked Dwight Yoakam seems at times to be channeling Kevin Spacey as the requisite sociopath, but the most interesting performance comes from Forest Whitaker. Whitaker seems to be playing the stereotypical soft-hearted non-bad bad guy, but the script (and the performance) throw in enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. The character has fallen upon hard times, but seems to have a genuinely good nature – but it’s reassuring to see that he seems to accept that there may have to be violence used.
The film is a solid action-thriller and benefits from a nuanced director and a superb cast to raise it above the bulk of such terror-in-your-own-home style of films. It is well put together and manages not to drag for a single minute of its screentime.