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"Panic Room": Crafting the Perfect Thriller

ML is an eighteen year old filmaholic who has won many english awards at school and worships David Fincher.

Kristen Stewart (left) and Jodie Foster in "Panic Room" (2002)

Kristen Stewart (left) and Jodie Foster in "Panic Room" (2002)

Fincher's "Panic Room": An Overlooked, Worthwhile Film

The fact that Panic Room, the small-scale 2002 thriller led by Jodie Foster, has been largely buried near the bottom of director David Fincher's immaculate filmography is not surprising.

It was Fincher's fifth feature film and released at a time when he was known for skillful, decently received popcorn movies rather than prestigious Oscar contenders. Unlike Se7en and Fight Club, which lingered in the public consciousness thanks to one-liners, jaw-dropping twists, and thematic richness, Panic Room has been largely forgotten by general filmaholics. It is even considered by die-hard Fincher fans to be his worst, after Alien 3.

However, while it doesn't match blows with, say, Zodiac or Gone Girl, the film absolutely nails what it's trying to be: a popcorn movie for a general audience.

From a screenplay written by David Koepp, Panic Room is sleek, intelligent, and unmarred by the characteristics that make some of Fincher's greater work difficult to access (long runtimes, non-linear structures, unreliable narrators, etc.) The result is a two-hour nail-biter that embraces the tropes of the genre and tells a damn good story.

So what makes Panic Room the perfect popcorn thriller?

There are spoilers below for the film.

A Simple Plot

A mother and daughter are alone in an invaded house.

That's Panic Room in a nutshell.

The terror of the movie comes from the tight simplicity of its plot. There's never a point where you're wondering what's happening—it's all laid out perfectly through clear, concise exposition.

At times the movie does surprise you, but the revelations serve to ramp up the tension rather than confuse the audience.

For instance, when Junior (Jared Leto) confesses the truth about the amount of money in the safe, the friction amongst the three criminals only intensifies until it reaches a boiling point.

With the narrative being so direct, it allows the suspense to breathe and the viewer is able to revel in the uncertainty without having to worry about missing something.

This leads to the final payoff being all the more cathartic.

Setting and Atmosphere

As its title makes clear, Panic Room is centered on claustrophobia, on the feeling of helplessness in a small space.

The film's opening credits, ironically enough, are made up of huge titles set against towering skyscrapers. It's the last time Fincher shows you the outside world before trapping both you and the characters in the hollow, ominous interior of Meg Altman's (Foster) new house.

The house itself, as acknowledged early on, is incredibly spacious for just Meg, a single mother, and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart).

In one of the movie's most impressive shots, Fincher's virtual camera moves through the huge space like an omniscient spirit, mapping out its entire geography in a single long take. However, the nature of the shot makes the wide space feel almost suffocating, as if the camera itself is unable to penetrate the walls between the house and the world beyond.

This initial feeling of suffocation is driven even further when the house itself, invaded by three men, becomes inaccessible for Meg and Sarah, now boxed in and cramped inside the titular panic room.

An asset of all great thrillers is that the suspense never relents, and the audience never breathes easy. In Panic Room, the claustrophobic setting is itself an antagonist to the main characters, playing into Meg's fear of tight spaces and placing both her and Sarah in vulnerable positions when the robbers pump gas through the air vents to make them suffocate, or when Sarah suffers a seizure with treatment out of reach.

As such, by turning something as formidable as the setting itself against the characters, the tension remains as solid as a wall.

Characters to Root for, Characters to Hate

Panic Room isn't the most complex or nuanced film; of all of Fincher's work, it has the least to say.

So it only fits that the characters within it aren't onions for you to peel layers off of as the story progresses. There's no Tyler Durden or Amy Dunne here. The closest thing Panic Room offers as morally grey is Burnham (Forest Whitaker), the most likable of the three criminals, and even his "bad guy with a good heart" thing is trite and not all that interesting.

That said, Burnham being as sympathetic a character as he is, only serves to feed the tension.

The audience is forced to root for members on both teams; they want Meg and Sarah to pull through, but they can't help but feel for Burnham, due in no small part to Whitaker's solid performance.

Balancing things out, there's Leto's loud-mouthed Junior and Dwight Yoakam's sadistic Raoul, both of whom are intensely unlikable and, in the case of the latter, rather terrifying.

This pairing of a vulnerable mother-daughter duo facing off against greedy, twisted robbers drives the movie's suspense throughout, while the addition of Whitaker's character only causes it to thicken as the film creeps toward its climax.

Problems and Payoffs

Out of everything, this aspect is what Panic Room absolutely excels at.

A two-hour movie about two people hiding out in a room while three others try to break into it threatens to lose steam no matter how convincing the actors are, or how precise a director like Fincher is.

It's Koepp's tight, superbly paced screenplay that provides the foundation for everything.

The core function of any thriller is to thrill, and this cannot be accomplished if things go the characters' way more often than they don't.

So, in Panic Room, Koepp creates a constant cycle of problems and payoffs.

Here are three examples:

  1. The intruders pump propane gas into the room to force Meg and Sarah out. Meg tries to seal the vents but fails. Finally, she ignites the gas, which flows through the hose and blows up the tank outside the room while she and Sarah cover up beneath fireproof blankets.
  2. The phone line within the panic room is not hooked up, so Meg and Sarah are unable to call for help. As a solution, Meg taps into the main telephone line and manages to contact her ex-husband, but the call abruptly ends when the invaders cut the line off.
  3. Meg can no longer afford to wait the robbers out, as Sarah threatens to go into diabetic shock and the invaders take Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), Meg's ex-husband, hostage in order to force her out of the room. Meg runs out of the room to retrieve the med kit, then has an altercation with Raoul. Ultimately, both Raoul and Burnham breach the room, and Meg manages to toss the med kit inside before the door shuts. Softening to Meg's pleas while thinking about his own sick child, Burnham gives Sarah the medication.

Throughout the narrative, Koepp maintains a thunderous pace by throwing one obstacle after another, constantly stacking the odds against the main characters to heighten the suspense.

Since nothing is made easy for Meg and Sarah, our connection to them grows with every close call, and by the time the third act begins to unravel, we're watching at the edges of our seats.

So, while it doesn't haunt your dreams like Se7en or Zodiac, Fincher's Panic Room is far from a dud. It sticks ruthlessly to a formula, sure, but it's a reliable formula nonetheless.

Bolstered by top-notch performances and outstanding direction, it's one of the most well-rounded genre films in recent memory and the perfect popcorn thriller.

© 2021 ML Silva