MAY/JUN 2002

Panic Room
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker

Panic Room’s plot opens in New York City with the newly divorced Meg Altman (Foster) hunting for a new house with her young daughter Sara (Kristen Stewart). Space—the space of the home—takes root as the subject of the film. The plot opens here, but the movie itself opens with a credit sequence that places the names of its major creative forces (director, writer, actors, cinematographers, etc.) in majestic 3-D computer generated letters that hover commandingly over the only free and open space in NYC: the streets and parks. Floating there, looking perfectly real (as if they had been constructed by the film’s carpentry crew and hung on wires digitally removed in post-production), these titles immediately ask one of the major questions of Panic Room: who or what determines and controls the space that surrounds us and how do they or it accomplish this determination and control? Those towering silver CGI letters up there on the screen actually provide the ultimate answer to our question (many carefully constructed movies encapsulate their entirety within their opening title sequence), but we’ll come back at the end.

There are several forces vying for control and determination of space in Panic Room, the last of which trumps all the others.

Wealth, Privilege, and Protected Space

Meg and Sara are introduced as wealthy, privileged people. The indications of this pile up rapidly in the opening sequence in which they are shown a cavernous four-floor townhouse on the upper west side of Manhattan. Meg’s personal real estate agent has found this property for her—there is no public listing of it. At this early stage, the film could easily progress into a romantic melodrama describing the tribulations of a middle-aged woman starting over in the big city. We soon depart from this possibility, however, as we reach the last room of the house—a steel-clad post-modern fallout shelter adjoining the master bedroom. The realtor giving the tour describes this "panic room" as a stronghold not against foreign military assault (it is on the third floor, after all), but against robbery/home invasion. The room was installed in the house by its previous owner: a financier with untold riches. Because this room gives the movie its title, we know it will also provide the main focus of the story.

Thus, in just a few minutes wealth and privilege have invoked their ability to determine space (such a large open space hidden within crowded NYC) and to control space, and the concerns of the wealthy and privileged characters introduced thus far have further determined that space as a contested one whose occupants may require the protection of this panic room. Meg, however, shows strong doubts about the need for such protective measures culminating in her desire to turn the whole security system off after having moved into the house. In setting up Meg and Sara as the sole occupants of the house, the film further invokes social values that determine women as a gender in need of protection—even within the boundaries of a home that at one point in social history was itself considered protected space. Next, Panic Room proceeds to assign male characters the role of violators of this protected space.

Desperation, Greed, Brutality

and Violated Space

To motivate the use of violence in controlling and determining space, Panic Room offers the forces of desperation, greed, and brutality as personified respectively by the characters Burnham (Whitaker), Junior (Jared Leto), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). In keeping with the time-honored Hollywood axiom that crime/violence does not pay—and without giving too much away here—none of these forces meets with its desired end. Raoul wears a ski mask through nearly the entire film rendering brutality literally faceless, and stripped of humanity. This lack of humanity (as well as Raoul’s stubborn stupidity) leads brutality to its failure. The only manner in which brutality can control space is by destroying it. The grandson of the aforementioned previous owner of the townhouse, Junior (personifying greed) displays the stupidity-inducing potential of wealth and privilege. He attempts to control space by manipulating his peers personifying brutality and desperation. But manipulation does not equal cooperation and so greed too only metes out destruction, mainly of the self-directed variety.

Desperation, lastly, proves a more interesting and ambivalent motivator of violence. In the person of Burnham, desperation openly refuses personal violence. He will only engage in violating the space itself, in the hope of committing a genuinely victimless (at least in his initial conception) property crime. In truth, his desired end is only to improve the lot-in-life of his family, but custody lawyers (more representatives of wealth and privilege) have hounded him into his desperate position. Throughout the film he attempts to control the space of the townhouse and its panic room with humane ingenuity. His failure results only from the misguided alliances he has formed with the forces of greed and brutality, and his redemption results from a decisive shift of alliances.

Failure of Masculine Authority to Restore Order

In order to fully exalt its feminine principals (Meg and Sara), Panic Room handily dismisses the positive potential of masculine intervention to control the space. Meg’s ex-husband tries to come to their aid, but to worse than no avail. The police too visit the door of the townhouse, but Meg turns them away with the knowledge that their intervention will only escalate the violence.

Feminine Power to Adapt and Survive in Adversity

The narrative clearly defines Meg as a sharp-minded, strong-willed survivor. She has divorced her husband because of his infidelity; she has retained custody of Sara; and she has only reluctantly taken vengeful advantage of her ex’s wealth by purchasing this huge house (for, at least in part we assume, Sara’s benefit). Throughout the film she demonstrates heroic ingenuity and courage in the face of dangers that she watches with videographic clarity on the townhouse’s surveillance system. She even goes so far as to impress one of her attackers into service when Sara’s survival is at stake. This desperate yet hopeful act will later pay her an even greater dividend (in contrast to Burnham’s downward spiral of hopelessness and desperation). Though she has come to possess the space of the townhouse by the power of her wealth and privilege, she masters it (both controlling and determining) by the intrinsic power of her flexible human intelligence.

The Simulators and Their Simulation

Now we move into the esoteric territory of examining Panic Room under two assumptions about director David Fincher and his cast and crew: first, that they know they are creating a simulation of reality; second, that our culture interacts in complex ways with the simulations that play out on movie screens. When we move in reverse from the opening sequence of the story to the film’s opening credit sequence, we can readily discern that the space of habitation on which the story focuses can be metaphorically extended to all of urban space (and perhaps even all of nature as well when we see David Fincher’s director credit floating above New York’s Central Park). Further, we can read the manner in which the credits themselves are melded with the photographic reality as an implication of the total control that these creative artists wield over this simulated reality.

Within the body of the narrative itself, the film continually works at what might seem to be cross-purposes with itself. Into its suspense-thriller narrative that depends on the viewer’s belief in the constructed reality, Panic Room inserts powerfully unrealistic moments in which the camera passes through solid objects and performs other physically impossible feats (with the help of computer generated images). Instead of working against the film’s effectiveness, however, these injections of clearly simulated reality serve to heighten the level of suspense by enhancing the position of omniscience occupied by the helpless viewer. It is this strange combination of all-knowingness and helplessness (to change onscreen events) that results in the "suspense" effect. By pushing the limits of believability in terms of what one can see or know in Panic Room, the filmmakers work to create a movie that is not only relentless in its level of suspense, but also relentless in its effort to make viewers aware that the unreality of omniscience itself forms the core of their experience. One of the few moments when the suspense falters, in fact, comes during a shot that removes the camera/viewer from the omniscient position to show instead only indistinct shadows of characters as they fight with each other.

In the end, it is the filmmakers who have determined the (virtual) space displayed on the screen and the filmmakers who have controlled every aspect of it. Indeed the space (and its inhabitants) they have presented us with has been powerfully engaging, but it is, after all, fake and—as the film’s coda implies—perhaps we as viewers would do well to set our sights on something more realistic. R

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