Friday, September 5, 2014

David Fincher Retrospective: Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room
Director:  David Fincher
Starring:  Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam
Rated:  R

Shut it.  Lock it.  And get the fuck away from it.

Due to some production issues, it would be three years instead of two before we got another film from David Fincher.  After a run of three films that had their fair share of complexities, Fincher offered for a more straightforward thriller.  However, since its David Fincher, its not that "simple" of a thriller when we get to the end result.  The story of Panic Room is pretty much everything it appears to be on the surface and on paper in production (the majority of this film takes place in one room of a house if we really strip it down).  Its when we get to the how David Fincher executes and paints this picture, where we see why its a more challenging film than you'd think.
Panic Room is a very very Alfred Hitchcock inspired thriller.  Many point to it as taking inspiration from the film Rear Window, which yes, it definitely has that going for it.  Another film from the "Master Of Supsense" I see a lot of here in the Fincher aspect of things is Notorious.  Fincher uses long traveling camera takes (a lot of them done with CG, but they still look pretty great) to get from one room in the house to another.  He even winks at us that "yes, I love Notorious" in his first big movement when it travels from Jodie Foster's room to the keyhole on the door.  This is an incredible tip of the hat to that legendary shot from the Hitchcock masterpiece where the camera travels down a staircase and ends up on a close up revealing a key in the palm of Ingrid Bergman's hand.  Fincher seems to be having a lot of fun with crafting complex ways to shoot simple scenes and it enhances the film's quality among its peers because of it.
Opening titles continue to highlight Fincher's works not attached to any franchise and channel the Hitchcock.  He says they were very much to resemble the opening credit sequences from North By Northwest and The Trouble With Harry.  I can see some of that for sure.  But the city shots also remind me of the opening city shots of Psycho.  Fincher also claims the story is also draws a bit from the Sam Peckinpah film Straw Dogs and the legendary John Huston film Treasure Of The Sierre Madre.  And from the home invasion and villain perspective it definitely resembles them.  A lot of the money issues are much like the Bogart picture, while being locked in the room and threatened from the outside forces are easily akin to the Dustin Hoffman survival picture.  However, these are just infused into the film and given life of their own, and you never once feel like "knock off" or anything.  In fact, it feels such of its own idea that its almost after Fincher points it out that you're like "ahhh yea, I can see that".
For as many things troubled this production, none of it is evident in the final product.  This film's cast almost looked entirely different as well.  It original starred Nicole Kidman, Hayden Panettiere and Tool/A Perfect Circle singer Maynard James Keenan instead of Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart and Dwight Yoakam.  Panettiere and Keenan left due to scheduling conflicts before production, but Kidman actually began filming the movie.  She wound up re-aggravating a knee fracture she suffered on Moulin Rouge! and had to leave the production (She does appear as the voice of the ex-husband's girlfriend on the phone).  It almost shut down the movie for good, but they kept on shooting around the character while trying to find a replacement.  They then brought in Jodie Foster and turned the character of Meg around into a strong combatant instead of weak and scared.  Foster then found out on set that she was five weeks pregnant but they kept shooting around her belly to finish.  But, the studio didn't like that footage so they postponed production til she had the baby and reshot the stuff they didn't like.  This film also went through two DP's too.  
After his complex works, Fincher wanted to make an elite popcorn thriller.  And he really has here.  Its a simple story but its all in the telling.  I really find this movie to be incredibly suspenseful.  For me, one of the best moments is the slow motion chase as Meg leaves the Panic Room to get her cell phone when she thinks the coast is clear and knocks over a lamp.  Its a chase sequence done by way of symphony and its a huge nail biter.  I STILL get anxious when I watch that moment.  The film is also wonderfully colored with its characters and humor.  Jared Leto is, at the time, like you've never seen him before with his ridiculous corn rows and bravado.  Dwight Yoakam is also pretty vile and a terrific villain for the film.  We laugh but we're also very afraid of what this wildcard could be capable of.  In a very small, but effective part is character actor (you know him from The Sopranos and as Ryan Chappelle on 24) Paul Schulze.  He plays the part of a Hitchockian cop with such excellence.  While he is a good guy and he is trying to help, in the moment he shows up at the door to converse with Meg, you're wanting the opposite to happen.  Its almost a reverse Hitchock thing (if that's a term).  I'm reminded of the scene in Psycho where Marion Crane is awoken on the side of the road by the motorcycle cop.  There's not much of Schulze in the movie, but what he's given he absolutely NAILS.
The fifth film of David Fincher is one that's all about him focusing on his craft.  He wanted to make an accessible thriller, but he also wanted to make it the most top notch one he could make.  And it does stand above and beyond that.  Its not just throw away, its rich with great production values and performances.  Yes, there are plot conveniences and sometimes characters are smarter than they should be, but its all part what makes thrillers so much fun.  If anything, this film is a shining example of "If you show a gun in the first act, it should be fired in the second act".  This film's first act has a lot of set ups and devices that definitely take effect later on.  Its one of Fincher's easiest movies to digest as you can just sort of relax and watch it and not have to worry about solving some mystery or finding a meaning to something.  Although, its so much fun though that you much feel "with" the characters as to yell at them to do stuff as if they can hear you.  Its all part of the fun.  This is one of Fincher's less celebrated works, but I really think its still a top of the line adult thriller.

NEXT TIME:  Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and "In case of emergency" Spider-man team up to take on the Zodiac killer!

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