For going on twenty years now—my how time flies—David Fincher has been our preeminent auteur of gross, depressing tales of murder and mayhem. Almost uniquely, Fincher has mastered a high-wire balancing act in the thriller genre, crafting films that are formally pristine, morally bracing, thematically insidious, emotionally devastating, and—most important of all—highly entertaining. Though chiefly noted for this selfsame prediliction toward the pleasantly unpleasant, Fincher has tried his hand at other things, too—one time it was good, one time it was the worst thing ever. On this episode: just because Fincher's good at thrillers, doesn't mean he's always good at thrillers.
Spoiler alert: mild
Meg Altman and her daughter Sarah readjust in the wake of the former's apparently enormously profitable divorce, and (bearing in mind that Panic takes place in NYC, described by Dante as the circle of Hell where real estate costs around $1500 per square foot) Meg has set her eyes on an offensively horrible mansion-thing in Manhattan. This is no ordinary four-story brownstone, however: its previous owner, an exceedingly rich and appropriately paranoid old man, has installed within it a panic room, impenetrable to virtually any attempt to breach it. Naturally, on their first night in their new home, they find themselves under assault by a trio of criminals. The Altmans immediately fly to the armored vault. But the treasure the invaders want is in there with them. The siege begins.
There's nothing about the basic design of Panic Room that says it shouldn't work, and much about it that strongly militates it should. Besides that winning high concept, Panic Room boasts two super-actors playing pointedly to type, both in Jodie Foster as Meg (is she flinty and intellectual and cold, devoid of any maternal feelings but the most mechanistic protect-and-defend instincts? you bet!), as well as in Forest Whitaker as the most humane of its antagonists, Burnham (is he meticulous and strangely warm, yet a little enigmatic? you got that right!). Along for the ride is a regular-strength actor in Jared Leto as Junior, the highly-strung ringleader of the criminals, and what I feel most comfortable describing as a well-cast presence in Dwight Yoakam, as the vicious "Raoul." (This is all whilst a young Kristen Stewart, whom I hear is good in many of her movies that I've never seen, and certainly not good at all in the many movies of hers that I have seen, is reduced to shivering diabetic silence by the final third. For the record, she is as capable as Sarah's Annoying Tween archetype permits her to be.)
Panic Room really should work, and it is no secret that it doesn't.
The most patent problem, of course, is David Koepp's script. Koepp's got a thirty-year career full of many strong hits—and not a few palpable misses. Panic is more of a near-miss than a complete whiff, but the problems are endemic, from the large down to the film-breakingly small. Maybe its original sin can be found deep down in the very bowels of its structure: in reality, Altman isn't the undeniable protagonist of her own home invasion. However, Panic is unwilling to commit to the character with a true moral arc, Burnham, until the very end. The film thus spends half the time in confusion over which of its dueling leads matters, only occasionally managing to anchor itself to either one and never to any conflict that's unambiguously between them.
Koepp's grip on everything else is tenuous, too. Panic's not really a preposterous thriller at its outset, only becoming one by brute force in its set-pieces. This is clearest in the film's signature (and most laughable) sequence, where Meg Altman
Thrillers can be silly: Panic's biggest failure isn't logical, but tonal. It leaps jarringly, from its attempts at the nail-biting joy of a Hitchcock film, one of its named influences, to its attempts at the queasy quasi-exploitation of its other, Peckinpah—and then back again. In fact, what it's mostly doing is attempting to bandwagon onto its uncredited influence, the contemporaneous fad of Stupid Hyperviolent Crime pioneered by Tarantino, Stone, Ritchie, Coen & Coen, et al. We could leave aside that writing compelling hardboiled material is something Koepp seems constitutionally unable to do, but that would be leaving aside the very worst Panic has to offer, namely the pair of unhinged morons that aren't Burnham. The intention with Burnham's compatriots is unpredictable volatility; instead, Junior and Raoul end up too childishly lame to be really effective villains, and since villainy is all Panic wants of them, they're abject wastes of time. While Leto surrenders to his terrible character immediately, giving what I hope is his career's very worst performance, Yoakam holds out for almost as long as he keeps his mask on. But Raoul succumbs soon enough. The best thriller would have a hard time surviving Koepp's kindergarten dialogue, bottoming out with Yaokam's utterance of the fateful phrase "jerkwad." The traditional leavener of Fincher movies—his dark humor—is almost nowhere to be found in Panic; there is unpleasant comedy, but predominantly of the unintentional variety. To wit, why did no one stop the hair and makeup people who did that to Jared Leto's head?
This is where David Fincher comes back into this David Fincher retrospective. Fincher didn't care overmuch about Panic Room, and despite the fun he has with a new CGI toy that permits pointlessly swooping camera movements over a somewhat fakey digital collage of the house, it really shows. This is Fincher on autopilot, and it's what we've already seen always happens when he's disengaged with his own material: he falls back on his preexisting quasi-horror style, delivering dull grimness. This is to the good and to the bad: Panic does work as a collection of images, albeit not entirely perfectly. For example, Altman's brownstone is a haunted mausoleum before anyone even breaks in, surrendering a great deal of suspense by never providing his heroes a haven in the first instance. Yet Fincher can make any space look worse, and by the time it's done, the Altman home looks like Tyler Durden might be ready to make a generous offer. If Fincher's cold, sick style is less noticeable here than in the utter wreck that was Benjamin Button, it's only because Panic does remain a more appropriate subject for Default Dave.
Panic can be comfortably placed in the context of Fincher's body of work as a misfire, based on a bum script that had already been dropped by Ridley Scott and Forest Whitaker himself, and picked up by Fincher only because he conceived of it as a lazy Sunday of a film, a nice, small, single-location time-waster that would serve as a cooldown from the hard workout of Fight Club's production. Unbeknowst to him, however, Fincher doesn't do lazy Sundays. Ironically but perhaps inevitably, Panic turned into a bit of a debacle itself, partly because of Fincher's perfectionist ethos, but also for reasons entirely outside of his control, burning through Nicole Kidman, originally cast as Meg, before Jodie Foster finally came on board (along with her baby, who rudely insisted upon being born during production). It even nearly got shut down due to an impending strike. In any event, it certainly fulfilled its purpose of wasting time—my time, your time, and David Fincher's time, too. And that's pretty valuable time.
Playing defiantly against type, Michael Douglas is Nicholas Van Orton, an obscenely rich middle-aged man who has closed himself off emotionally. But on his 48th birthday—the age his father committed suicide—Nicholas gets a gift from his black-sheep wastrel of a brother. He's been invited to a game—The Game, if you will, the ultimate experience. But as his life is dismantled by an invisible, seemingly omnipotent conspiracy, he wonders just what kind of game it is he's playing—or if it's even a game at all.
The Game is Fincher's third film, and it's not very good. But I can almost call it adequate. The Game is still the best of Fincher's thrillers that isn't great, anyway. The result is significantly more watchable than Panic Room, but also on average more boring.
At least The Game is upfront about how preposterous it's about to get, but The Game also has a curious way of destroying its credibility for the middle hour of its (naturally) overlong runtime while never feeling big or exciting enough to justify the insane logistics of its shadowy conspiracy. What the The Game requires is a giddy suspension of disbelief, such as is possessed by the recent, resolutely goofy deadly game-based thriller 13 Sins, or by the wackier paranoid thrillers, like Enemy of the State or Conspiracy Theory. Fincher, however, has managed "giddy" exactly twice in his entire filmography—and it's that fucked-up kind of giddy like he'd find with his next film, but certainly not here. Not between The Game's langorous pacing, its ultimately repetitive set-pieces, and—believe it or not—its overly dour tone. That's a tone that's set in the first moments of the film, as Fincher has fun with formalism by recreating old 8mm home movies, and we have no fun at all, between watching the younger Van Orton have a depressing rich kid childhood and the elder Van Orton jump the fuck off his roof and die.
Nonetheless, The Game is notable as Fincher's first venture outside the shit-stained aesthetic of Alien 3 and Seven. It is, of course, still ridiculously severe. We can see the first signs of the Austere Rich Person Misery that would take over for the Unacknowledged Post-Apocalyptic Urban Setting that dominated Fincher's formative period. Only the definitive cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth isn't yet here, to fill The Game's sets with that digital paradox of razor-sharp objects moving purposely through a diffuse haze.
Aside from those visual markers, which only wind up meaning something a decade later, The Game is Fincher's least interesting film to talk about. Nothing is ineffably wrong, as is the case in Panic Room. The lead is better, too: Douglas is terribly engaged and exactingly on point, in a way that Foster is only some of the time in her vehicle. It's moderately enjoyable to watch Nicholas get ground down by the Game, perhaps not least because it suggests the exact kind of distant, invisible, impersonal machinations the wealthy have set upon us to destroy our own lives. It's a lot like a somewhat less-nihilist The Counselor in this respect, but it's really more like very low-rent Hitchcock, except the man in question isn't totally the wrong one. What does buoy The Game, if anything can, is its final 20 minutes. When all is revealed, it's ultimately a kind of profound emotional experience for Nicholas Von Orton and audience alike—and, if you're anything like me, completely despite ourselves. That the ending of The Game is also batshit stupid and ludicrously unbelievable does have to count as an ineradicable black mark against it, but it is still fun... and perversely heartwarming. Beware, however, that this is coming from someone who genuinely loves a great many batshit stupid, unbelievable thrillers. So consider for a moment just how very contrived and nonsensical The Game really has to be.
The Game is where a pattern became noticeable in Fincher's work. Trekkies ought to be familiar with this formula: the odd numbered films are mediocre (or outright awful), but the even numbers are great. (Never mind that this is a despicable lie about the Star Trek franchise; it's true here.) Fincher would only finally break this depressing boom-bust cycle nine feature films and eighteen full years into his directing career. Jesus, it was about time. I'm glad that now, with his seventh best (and fourth worst) picture, we can at last leave the left side of the graph upon which one plots David Fincher's strikingly bimodal body of work. We move forward, then, from the rotten and the mediocre immediately into the great—indeed, into the nearly flawless.
David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9. Alien 3 (1992)
8. Panic Room (2002)
7. The Game (1997)
6. The Social Network (2010)
5. Zodiac (2007)
4. Fight Club (1999)
3. Seven (1995)
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
1. Gone Girl (2014)