Inside the uncomfortably small world of “Panic Room”

Panic Room Kristen Stewart & Jodie Foster in Panic Room (Sony)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. With his latest, Mank, now on Netflix, we’re spending December rifling through the cold, exacting details of David Fincher and the ways his music-video-inspired aesthetics changed American filmmaking. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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If Panic Room is really known for anything, it’s the opening credits. Opinions differ about the movie itself, it’s Minor Fincher, if that’s something that’s even really possible. But those credits, man, those things are dope as hell. Panic Room opens with Howard Shore’s ominous score playing over a gorgeous ninety second montage of aerial footage of Manhattan architecture and the credits displayed as words occupying physical space, hovering in the air, taking up room and casting shadows just like everything else in the world. It’s the kind of showy stylistic thing that David Fincher’s always doing that thrills his fans and irritates his critics. It’s gorgeous, sure, but does it actually mean anything?

Well, actually, yeah, kind of. Panic Room is among Fincher’s most straightforward genre exercises, it’s not really interested in subverting or challenging or upsetting anything like Seven, The Game or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything on its mind. Panic Room is a movie about space, and the objects in that space, and it’s about the worth of that space and what people are willing to do to claim it for themselves. The space in question in Panic Room is a cavernous brownstone in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And the people competing for it are newly single mother Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her diabetic daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), against a gang of three home invaders: Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forrest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). 

Meg used to be married to Patrick, but that’s over now. The house is way too big for just two people, but fuck it, it’s not her money (dad’s rich, mom’s just mad, Sarah says at one point), and it’s gorgeous, so why not? Their first night in the house, Meg and Sarah eat pizza and commiserate over what a shitty husband and dad Patrick turned out to be.  Later that night three masked men quietly and efficiently break into the house. It seems the previous owner was a rich weirdo who died and now his relatives are fighting over his assets, much of which are hidden away. His grandson Junior believes that there are millions squirreled away in the old man’s panic room, installed in the master bedroom just a few feet away from where Meg is sleeping.  

Believing the house unoccupied, Junior enlists the panic room’s architect Burnham to help him break into the house and extract the money in exchange for a share. He also brings the mysterious, heat-packing Raoul along as muscle on the off chance that something goes wrong, but it won’t  because nobody is in the house anyway. By the time they realize their mistake Meg and Sarah are in the panic room with the money and surveillance footage of the three of them breaking into the house. And while Meg and Sarah are safely cut off from the intruders, they’re also trapped with them, unable to communicate with the outside world. 

There are five main characters in Panic Room, but the movie is really about the power struggle between three of them. Meg owns the house and the panic room inside it, Burnham designed and built the room, and Junior knows about the treasure inside. Who controls the space and why?

Panic Room is a movie about space, and the objects in that space, and it’s about the worth of that space and what people are willing to do to claim it for themselves.

It’s easy to see Meg as the hero, it’s her house after all, and she’s also a single mom of a sick kid, abandoned by her husband for a younger woman. But what do we actually know about her? Junior is obviously a trust fund brat, but Meg doesn’t work for her money either. When asked her profession earlier she says she’s going back to Columbia. And she’s not paying for her house, he can afford it, the realtor says when asked the cost, maybe sticking it to him is part of the point? It sucks to get dumped for a younger woman, but when we see her husband later in the film, we see that he’s a good twenty years older than she is.  Jodie Foster may not be Nicole Kidman (Kidman was originally cast but had to drop out due to injury and does a little voice cameo as The New Girlfriend), but she’s not hard on the eyes either. Maybe she was just a pretty young thing who saw her chance and latched onto an old rich guy because it came with financial security. Is that so different from Junior elbowing to the front of the inheritance line?

And then there’s Burnham, the only character with any kind of skills that might be used to actually do anything. He’s in the middle of a custody battle and needs the money to pay the court costs, while Junior doesn’t need the money any more than Meg needs to live in such an opulent home, they just want. Burnham’s also the only person in the movie to do anything truly altruistic–late in the movie when he’s in the panic room with Sarah and Meg’s outside, he administers a shot of insulin, saving her from falling into a coma. And later still, when he has the chance to escape with millions in untraceable bonds, he returns to the house to save the Altmans from the murderous Raoul.  

Forrest Whitaker & Dwight Yoakam in Panic Room (Sony)

Panic Room is ultimately a turf war between three people who don’t deserve anything. And it’s about how the lust for just a little bit more can twist people and force them into situations out of their control. Meg didn’t need that big house, she took it to hurt her ex. Burnham is obviously a smart and capable man (installing high end security systems is a lucrative profession) but apparently it wasn’t enough because he was willing to risk it all for whatever was in that safe. Meg’s spite almost kills her daughter, Burnham’s greed turns him into a thief and a killer, and Junior and Raoul, they’re just dead. 

Let’s go back to those opening credits for a second. They’re mostly shot at dusk, because obviously. They don’t call it Magic Hour because everything looks shitty and gross. But consider, sunset is the signal for the end of the working day, it’s the time to close up shop and head home, especially in the fall. Panic Room takes place during fall, the leaves are orange and red, and whip through the air and into windows and doorways in the storm that rages outside for most of the middle of the film. Fall is kind of the evening of the year, isn’t it? It’s when the Earth starts to close up shop and prepare for the long, dark winter.  Panic Room is a world in decline, it may not be dark yet, but it soon will be. Nobody makes anything anymore, and the few who do, either hide what they have away, or it isn’t enough, everyone else is just fighting for crumbs. And it’s getting darker all the time. The movie is deliberately ambiguous about what happens to Burnham; he’s captured by the police, but only because he stuck around to save the Altmans from Raoul, maybe that gets him some slack. But Meg seems to have learned a lesson, the last time we see her and Sarah they’re back to house hunting, this time for something that doesn’t take up so much space.  

Panic Room Trailer:

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