The nervous townsman flicks his eyes back and forth between the invading motorcycle gang and Marlon Brando, their leader in black leather. “What are you rebelling against?”
The screen legend scowls and revs his engine: “What do you got?”
Actor Edward Norton scolded critics and reminded them of this scene from 1954’s The Wild One while defending director David Fincher’s last film, Fight Club, against cries of self-importance. Yet outside of this one moment, The Wild One was simplistic and forgettable–an exploitation piece disguised as a message movie.
It’s easy to see why Norton would compare Fincher’s film to Brando’s rebel. While Fincher himself has a keen appreciation of film history, more often than not he’s transformed that appreciation into extreme technical prowess rather than any semblance of storytelling ability. He understands the aesthetic value of complex camera maneuvers, but fails to utilize them in the service of story, pace, or character. As a result, his films are impressive to look at but are never emotionally engaging. They are hollow genre pieces and make little noise. Rather than a rebel yell, they make a rebel yelp.
Which brings us to Panic Room. As was the case with Norton and Fight Club co-star Helena Bonham Carter, Fincher has once again recruited well-respected actors (this time it’s Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker) to star in a vehicle where the craft of acting is of secondary concern. Indeed, there is very little emotional content to which Foster can grab hold. When we see her break down in tears while soaking in the bathtub (due to her recent separation from her husband, as we have learned from laughably blunt expository dialogue), it is not an engaging moment grown organically from the dramatic action of the film. Rather, it is simply a telegraph alerting us to the fact that she is a Sad Character, all in the misguided hope that this development will add depth to what is essentially nothing more than another high-concept genre picture.
The hook of screenwriter David Koepp’s script is fairly simple: A woman (Foster) rents a New York apartment equipped with a high-tech “panic room” (a quasi-bomb shelter that locks out home invaders), then must use it to protect her daughter from a trio of thieving bad guys (Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, and an incredibly grating Jared Leto). Little else happens, which provides Fincher with plenty of space to cram in elaborate tracking shots and unnecessary computer-generated effects.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Fincher as just another generic movie-maker churning out a high-gloss product for the malls of America. The lighting and camera work, in and of themselves, are a delight to watch. His eye for visuals is incredibly sharp, while his grasp of recent technical film innovations may be unparalleled by any other contemporary director. But in service of what? His sense of narrative is dull and insights into human behavior seem to elude him entirely. When the camera impossibly zooms down hallways, through bedrooms, and ultimately inside of a keyhole, how is the story served? It is not, of course–the only purpose is to impress the film students and video store clerks of the world who can appreciate the shot’s degree of difficulty, but care little about its dramatic significance. Consequently, Fincher has been anointed the patron saint of filmmaking by denizens of college dormitories and Internet chat rooms alike.
Certainly his, ahem, “dark edge” increases his popularity with this group. Gruesome violence, morbid humor, and endless pop culture references play to their tastes. However, the question must be asked: Is this the work of a rebel? Hardly.
For one thing, the influence of popular independent films from the early nineties is too readily apparent. He’s attempted to co-opt Quentin Tarantino’s once fresh and unique sensibility and now, a decade later, serves up a dish too stale for the more discerning viewer. Trying to gain hip credibility by stealing from outdated properties, as original as they once might have been, is an enterprise bound to fail. As a result, Panic Room is as rebellious as the teen bikers in the current Diet Pepsi commercial with digitally altered footage from Easy Rider.
And the very blandness of his new film may be what offends the most. How can Fincher present us with such a trifle and continue to play the outsider genius/tortured artist role? Known for his martyr complex, he’s reported his setbacks to the press, telling Entertainment Weekly, “Nothing went like it was supposed to on this movie. Literally. Everything f–ked up.” Original star Nicole Kidman had to back out because of an injury sustained on the set of Moulin Rouge, so he was forced to settle on Foster, one of the greatest actors of her generation. Then Foster got pregnant, so he had to let her character wear a sweater over the cleavage-maximizing tank top he had her running around in through most of the movie. Poor, misunderstood soul–how does he bear these hardships and still manage to provide us with such thought-provoking films?
Perhaps the best argument against Fincher’s self-professed rebelliousness can be found right on the screen in the form of product placements. One doesn’t have to look hard to find the copious number of clearly recognizable trademarked goods intruding into the picture. Popular soft drinks and bottled waters are carefully planted within the set decoration, and, worst of all, the apartment’s television surveillance system is provided by Sony, as can be inferred by the logo plastered beneath each prominently displayed monitor lining one wall of the actual panic room. This is especially noteworthy as the film studio behind the release of Fincher’s movie is none other than… Sony Pictures. The man is a rebel indeed.
But perhaps Fincher isn’t completely at fault in this misrepresentation. Perhaps he is simply a product that Sony is selling. What appears to be a careful cultivation of his own public persona may in fact be nothing more than corporate packaging. Through press releases and interviews, he’s been presented as the maverick director responsible for this dark and edgy film. If one does not enjoy dark and edgy films, then one does not appreciate maverick directors. One does not celebrate rebellion.
There’s a subtle form of bullying going on, as if we’re being told that only hip and intelligent people will like this movie. And isn’t that the basis of so much of today’s marketing, regardless of the product being sold? Be a rebel! Be an individual like everyone else! Rebels drink Diet Pepsi! Rebels watch the rebel director’s new rebel film, Panic Room! It’s dark and edgy and all the cool kids love it!
Perhaps this is just a silly theory cooked up by a bored mind during a movie that failed to engage on its own merits. Fincher’s reputation was already established before he began making films for Sony. This film, however, is still hollow. It is an unimportant studio picture made by a company man who uses recycled techniques in the vain attempt to convince his audience that they are watching something more than a beautiful woman in a tight tank top running away from bad men who want to do evil things. The movie is slight, and should be recognized as such.
Eric Gravning is a fellow at UT’s Michener Center for Writers, and is in postproduction on his independent feature film, All the Labor.