David Fincher is an intelligent and masterful filmmaker whose attention to detail has resulted in several superb, high-quality thrillers. One of my favourite Fincher films is Panic Room. Fincher is a master at taking the most minimalistic of set designs and using the physical space to raise the tension to a fever pitch. That’s precisely what he does in one tension-filled scene in Panic Room when Meg (Jodie Foster) confronts the three thieves who have broken into her house from inside a panic room, a concrete saferoom with video surveillance monitors, a steel door that locks you in until the police arrive and a separate phone line (which unluckily for Meg, doesn’t work.)
Fincher sticks Meg and her daughter Sarah inside the panic room and leaves the thieves outside to wait them out. It’s two nearly empty, dimly lit spaces occupied by characters who merely exchange dialogue and not much else, yet it is a tension-filled scene in the artful hands of Fincher who doesn’t need to use fancy camerawork or complex visual spaces or have his actors doing much to create effective suspense and fear.
Meg tries to assert authority and to put on a brave face as she firmly tells the intruders through the panic room’s intercom system to get out of her house. “Say fuck,” her daughter Sarah instructs. “Get out of my fucking house!” shouts Meg. It’s a small tension breaker and a touch of light humour, but the tension swells when the thieves tell Meg that they’re not going anywhere because what they came for is in that room. We learn that one of the burglars’s, Burnham, builds panic rooms for a living. "I spent the last 12 years of my life building rooms like this specifically to keep out people like us," he tells his co-conspirators. Burham possesses a unique knowledge about the room – how it works and its strengths and weaknesses – a lot more than Meg and Sarah know which is basically to stay inside and lock the door. Burham’s knowledge of the room and the fact that the three thieves have come specifically for what’s inside raises the stakes and the tension. The stalemate that Fincher creates between these two groups of people inside two spaces sets in motion a thrilling game that has you guessing who will concede first.