Safe Deposit Box

Final girl stands accused: Jodie Foster in 'Panic Room'
Columbia Pictures

The trailer for David Fincher's latest draws so heavily on a KKK fantasy/nightmare of black male sexuality that I dreaded seeing the movie. The black man penetrating the white house. The pale woman and her innocent child, cowering in a hidden room (or should I say womb?). The white male owner displaced, absent. The black man kicking the "door" down. A well-fingered fetish of a tale that inverts the historical rule: white violation of black bodies. Why is the director of Fight Club, The Game, and Seven--a director of above-average intelligence and style, I think--waving around such loaded metaphors?

Because people still believe in them, of course. Because white people continue to fear black people. And because a smart director can coax that fear forward and then twist it so hard that it zings back and thumps the fearful one on his or her noggin--causing the brain to flutter up and then resettle, perhaps into a different, less debilitating pattern. Panic Room does coax and twist and zing in this manner. How I wish that it did so within a better movie.

Unfortunately, Panic Room is kind of lame. (It may even be lamer than Fincher's first film, Alien3 --which is beautiful-looking, if formulaic.) The lameness stems from a variety of factors: some of the acting choices, the dull weight of the orchestral score, a few silly, showoff camera tricks, and dialogue that could've been written by George W. himself. ("If you don't do [fill in the blank], I'm gonna hurt you." "No, I'm gonna hurt you!") But the basic problem is that we never feel the pale woman (Jodie Foster) and her child (Kristen Stewart) are seriously in danger. For a director with the nerve to decapitate Gwyneth Paltrow--a director who three years ago imagined all the skyscrapers of New York tumbling down--Fincher makes this Panic Room a surprisingly safe place.

Recently divorced, Foster's Meg Altman is looking for a Manhattan home for herself and her near-adolescent daughter Sarah. An unctuous real estate agent shows Meg a "townstone" on the East Side: a vast four-story with living-room pillars and an elevator. And a "panic room," built by the previous owner to protect his paranoid, multimillionaired ass. Meg's husband, who is in pharmaceuticals, dumped her for another woman; the settlement is apparently very generous. She buys the house. We know Meg is a decent woman because she cries in the bath and drinks too much: Money means less to her than the loss of her marriage. Daughter Sarah is sarcastic but concerned deep down. So much for character development.

The night after the Altmans move in, an intruder cuts through the roof and drops in. His black figure leans through the door of the daughter's room, and looms at the doorway as the mother twists in her tortured slumber. Then he clumps down the stairs (are the Altmans deaf?) and opens the door to his fellow burglar. They proceed to have an argument--not in whispers, mind you--about whether or not to burglarize an occupied dwelling. The black man, Burnham (Forest Whitaker), is reluctant; he doesn't want anyone hurt. The white man, Junior (Jared Leto), yells obscenities for a while, but figures the job can be done; he's so wired that he's not thinking much. Then a ringer enters: Raoul, a man unknown to Burnham, who wears a stocking cap over his face and a handgun under his coat. When Junior mouths off to Raoul, the masked psycho grabs him and growls something like, "You don't know me at all." I must say that I didn't know him either, even when the stocking cap came off (Dwight Yoakam, hatless--the scariest thing!).

Eventually Meg twigs the presence of three loud men in her home, and hits the panic room with her daughter. The thieves try to break in. Apparently, the previous owner stashed millions of dollars in a concealed safe within the secure room. The thieves prove themselves failures, Junior more spectacularly than the others. (Fincher encourages Leto to tweak out like a kindergartner without his Ritalin.) Then Meg switches places with the burglars, and she tries to break in. The night is dark and stormy, two of the thieves are crazy, and Fincher sends his camera through walls and floors and ceilings to show Meg and Sarah's vulnerability. You'd think it'd be frightening; instead it's like a slasher film with only a Final Girl. You know she'll survive.

And so what if she doesn't? Fincher and Foster haven't really engaged the viewer. At the start, Meg has a fear of closed spaces, but that idea gets lost. Simply put, she's the lioness protecting her cub--a cliché on all levels. Fincher has a knack for exploring men's foibles: the masochistic fantasies of the powerful in The Game; the attraction toward epic violence in Seven; the fear of pussydom in Fight Club. Sure, these are clichés as well, but at least there's something at stake, some morality to be tested. Meg doesn't wonder whether she should hurt somebody who threatens Sarah: It's not even a question. For a moment, the movie asks her to choose between her daughter's life and that of another "innocent." The situation quickly dissolves: No decision necessary.

The extreme wealth represented by the Altmans' elegant pile is another thing that distanced this viewer from Meg. I found myself rooting for the conflicted Burnham, who just wants some bucks (a lot of bucks, actually) to give his kids a better life. Thanks in part to Whitaker's usual well-grounded portrayal, it's his character's fate that matters in the end. Burnham is the one most cheated by the movie's relentless arc.

Perhaps that was Fincher's intent. Fight Club didn't sell a lot of tickets, and I'm guessing that Fincher was pressured to wow the multiplex crowd with predictable thrills. Panic Room's only surprising elements seem to be postproduction choices: the title credits in a font appropriate for gravestone carving; the heavy (and absurdly unsuspenseful) funeral music; opening shots that peer down on midtown Manhattan and focus on the vulgar billboards. In light of this framing, the typical cautionary story about money and greed becomes something far more harsh: an elegy of sorts, even a confession. The accumulation of great wealth is not a morally neutral activity. Struggling with such inequalities means lives are twisted and sometimes lost--and not only those lives the camera locates in the center of the frame.

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