Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker
Watch Panic Room online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“My room. Definitely my room.” That’s Sarah Altman’s (Kristen Stewart) reaction to discovering the panic room in her new house. Her mum, Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), is a lot more cautious about the whole idea. There are no prizes for guessing which one of them turns out to be correct.
In fact, there are no prizes for guessing a lot of what happens in this 2002 thriller, which sees the two Altmans rushing to take refuge in the titular safe room, when their home is invaded by three men. The script, by David Koepp, is as lean and straight-forward as they come, upping the ante step by step, from broken glass to drills to fire to guns. As things descend into violence, the men (Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and Dwight Yoakam) begin to bicker among themselves. Attempts by Meg and Sarah to contact the outside world fail. And, of course, the hidden mystery of the house, which brings the intruders to their door, is slowly revealed.
But beneath the B-movie surface lies a deceptively complex piece of filmmaking. That, perhaps, also comes as no surprise when you see the director’s name on the poster: David Fincher. The Social Network helmer, who is famed for his painstaking attention to detail, took on Koepp’s script as a way to unwind after the epic task of adapting Fight Club for the screen. But Fincher’s definition of light work is different to everyone else’s: working with production designer Arthur Max (who had just worked on Se7en and Gladiator), Fincher arranged for a gigantic soundstage of the central house, as well as a digital replica, so that he could move his camera anywhere within the building. The result was a $6 million set and a camera that could weave through handles of coffee pots and between floorboards, mostly for the hell of it. One epic single-take tracking shot (with the aid of surprisingly undated CGI) soars from one end of the building to the other, then in and out of the front door lock, as the burglars try their key. And even that seems tame, compared to the 100+takes Fincher ordered for one brief shot of Meg dropping her diabetic daughter’s insulin kit by accident mid-tussle.
Fincher’s fanatical craftmanship elevates the material to an almost conceptual level, as he reinforces the claustrophobic atmosphere again and again through the oppressive sound design – all resonating thuds through concrete walls – his determination not to leave the building once we’ve entered at the beginning, and the fact that we, the audience, are free to move anywhere on the premises, only underlining how restricted our central duo are. Even the opening credits, which place the titles in line and in perspective with the towering buildings of New York, show how everything is grounded in its location.
There’s satisfaction to be found in the way the film up-ends genre conventions too: the women in this situation are in distress, but are far from damsels, with each mini-confrontation finding a new way for them to outsmart their attackers. “It’s just a woman and a kid,” the men tell each other, only to gravely underestimate who they’re messing with. Even when Meg’s ex-husband turns up, he’s far from able to save the day: that has to come from either Meg or her daughter.
That’s where Panic Room really shines: in the relationship between Meg and Sarah. Jodie Foster is typically brilliant as the abrupt, quietly fierce yet highly affectionate mother. “It’s disgusting how much I love you,” she says to Sara. “Tell me about it,” comes the sarcastic, yet sincere, reply.
That’s courtesy the film’s biggest secret weapon: Kristen Stewart. From the off, the chemistry between Stewart and Foster is key to creating an engaging thriller, and they’re both immediately convincing as parent and child. There’s oodles of subtle character work going on in their opening 10 minutes alone. Stewart’s “Mum, it’s too dark”, when Sarah’s being put to bed, foreshadows the idea of the house being scary, while highlighting the caring bond between the characters. Even Meg’s emotional state is captured by Sarah’s casual “fuck him, fuck her too”, when the subject of her dad and his new partner come up – simultaneously a dose of sentiment and a shot of comic relief. Not bad going for someone who was only aged 11.
But even back then, Stewart was already paving the groundwork for future roles in her impressive career, from the ability to convey intense emotions in a restrained manner to the physical commitment she shows to Sarah’s fit, when she doesn’t get her insulin shot in time – a sequence that really does leave you clenching your toes in sympathy. Fincher, in his director’s commentary for Panic Room, talks about how he liked Kristen’s tomboy-ish quality and compliments her style of performance as merely “being” – and, as Stewart has matured into a performer of real versatility and depth, Fincher’s observations have only become more accurate. Even at a young age, Panic Room shows Stewart as a low-key star, the very opposite of the kind of cutesy child actress who could have taken the role (Stewart was reportedly cast instead of Hayden Panettiere), but also one of confidence, with the air of being older than she is. The result is a supporting performance that ramps up Panic Room’s tension and dials up the emotion while barely saying a word – it’s a scene-stealer of a turn, which is no mean feat, given that Stewart is acting opposite Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker (whose weary charisma brings weight to the villain half of the tale), and a guy whose name is Raoul.
15 years on, Panic Room’s bold visuals and satisfyingly simple suspense mark it out as one of the most underrated entries on David Fincher’s CV. But it’s worth watching just to see the young Kristen Stewart in action. Panic Room was her breakout role, and she broke out like Steve McQueen in a POW camp. The rest is icing on the cake.
Panic Room is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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