Jodie Foster is my go-to for psychological horror. Since finding fame as Iris in Taxi Driver (1971), Jodie Foster has been pegged as the gritty female lead for a number of psychological movies like The Accused (1988), The Silence of The Lambs (1991) and Flight Plan (2005).
Directed by David Fincher, Panic Room (2002) had the benefit of Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), and Fight Club (1999). Hot on the tail of Fight Club, Fincher uses a lot of the same camera angles- the rapid zooming in and across the brownstone house to give an idea of its enormity- which show the playground these robbers have to run around in. Fede Alvarez might have been influenced by Fincher in his creation of Don’t Breathe (2016), another psychological thriller which relies on unusual shots to move the audience around the house.
Fincher was quick to distance Panic Room from his other, more critically acclaimed movies by hailing it ‘popcorn movie-making […] good B-movie stuff.’
Newly divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) view a house on Manhattan’s upper West side to start their life afresh, away from Meg’s cheating ex. The estate agent sweeps into the master bedroom on the uppermost floor of the house and Meg’s forehead wrinkles.
‘That’s strange. Is this room smaller than it should be?’ she says.
The panic room nestled behind a secret door in the master bedroom doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point, really.
With the purchase made, the mother and daughter sit down over a glass of wine and cola respectively. Watching her mother pick at a sad salad, Sarah says, ‘Fuck him. Fuck her too.’
They toast to that.
The pair are asleep by the early hours of the morning, Sarah comforted by her night light, and her mother by the glass of wine which follows her from shot to shot. As night falls Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), and Junior (Jared Leto) enter the house just loud enough, of course, to wake Meg.
When Burnham has no luck with the front door key (rookie mistake) he enters the house through a hatch in the roof. The audience no doubt wonders why a house with a security system worth what must be thousands of dollars has such a weak point.
Whitaker fans will be happy to know that Burnham is the thief with a heart, the thug with a conscience. His eyes widens as he sees the night light, and when he lets the other two thugs in downstairs he says the job’s off. That’s it- he’s done. He wasn’t counting on a woman and child being there.
But of course he isn’t. Despite his reservations about Raoul- who increases the stakes by carrying a gun- Burnham grudgingly agrees to continue with the job, just as long as he gets his hands on the millions supposedly hid in the panic room.
Meg spots the thieves on her security cameras.
Panic Room sets everything you need to know up in the first fifteen minutes. A lot like Don’t Breathe in this respect, it dedicates most of the film to the psychological nightmare Meg and Sarah have to overcome, with little preamble about the specifics of their situation. Panic Room has been criticised as having a bare-bones sort of script, but what would be added to the film by seeing Meg’s husband cheat? What can be gained form seeing the messy divorce, custody battle and all? Would the movie have the same effect if, half way through, the plot was still plodding through Meg crying in the bath?
Panic Room is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into. And I love the gender imbalance. Burnham is worried about continuing with the job because his conscience rails against hurting a woman and a child. He does not consider that he will be chased, fought against, defeated. He assumed that the woman and child will defer to his plan, screaming hysterically, arms in the air.
Panic Room is a B-movie which defies all over B-movies: the carefully crafted cat and mouse game makes for an intense watch. It’s more nail biting than popcorn biting.