You know a thriller is gonna pack some torque when the opening credits are emblazoned boldly against the skyline of a huge metropolitan city. Well, not necessarily, but it’s a nice urban atmospheric touch, and David Fincher’s Panic Room employs the tactic before it unleashes an unholy, seriously suspenseful bag of tricks on Jodie Foster and her young daughter (an androgynous looking Kristen Stewart). Recently divorced and poised to move into an airy, gorgeous NYC brownstone, she quite literally walks into the perfect setup for a thriller that Fincher milks for all it’s worth and then some. As the real estate agent (Ian ‘Dick Tremayne’ Buchanan) theatrically informs her, this townhome comes with a fortified Panic Room, a steel box installation in which one may safely hide from any and all intruders. That safely part gets shot to shit when three burglars bust in on their first night staying there, and turn it into one of those real time ‘one long night from hell’ motifs. Aloof, slightly compassionate Forest Whitaker, sketchy, strung out Jared Leto and vicious psychopath Dwight Yoakam are a hectic mix, but the chemistry is there and they’re all freaky in their own way, like wayward trick or treaters who grew up and graduated into petty thievery. They’re after something that’s only accessible through the panic room, but Jodie and Kristen won’t let them inside, which prompts the ultimate siege game of cat, mouse and upper class NYC mom that goes into the wee hours of a typically rainy night. Fincher could be considered the crown prince of the big budget, R rated Hollywood thriller, and he absolutely goes for broke in every department here. He’s got two mad dog cinematographers in Darius Kondji and Conrad W. Hall, who prowl the apartment like panthers and achieve some truly great WTF shots, turning the home into an elongated nightmare of barren hallways, rain streaked bay windows flickering surveillance cameras. Musical deity Howard Shore composes a baroque, threatening piece that practically booms across Central Park and echoes through the adjacent skyscrapers before it whistles through the steel rivets of the panic room like the dangerous propane that Whitaker maniacally tries to smoke them out with. Originally written with Nicole Kidman in mind (she has a super quick cameo), I think Foster is a better suit for the role with her narrow eyed, breathless intensity and lithe, lynx like physicality. Things get satisfyingly brutal later on, with some shocking violence when mommy grabs a sledgehammer and starts bashing heads in. The suspense here is real, it’s tactile, tangible, earned tension, the kind you can’t just fake or stage every other scene without detailed setups to catalyze the payoff. This isn’t Fincher’s first rodeo, and he rides this thing in the captain’s chair all the way to suspense nirvana. One of the best thrillers out there.
The Caveman’s Valentine has always fascinated me. As someone who has a mental illness, I’ve always tried my best to seek out films that portray such conditions in a respectable, inquisitive and enlightening tone. While this one cushions it’s earnestness with a slightly lurid and generic murder mystery, much of its desire to explore its character’s inner mindset shine through superbly and with much more authenticity than other films that try the same. Unless you suffer through, or have some intimate experience with someone like this protagonist, it’s tough to artistically represent their state. This one manages very well, and Samuel L. Jackson gives one of the most memorable, affecting and curiously overlooked performances of his career so far. Jackson is an actor who almost always gets cast in assured, authoritative roles. Here he portrays exactly the opposite of that as Romulus, a severely schizophrenic man who lives in a cave in Central Park, New York City. Romulus was once a brilliant pianist and a student at Juilliard, before his illness cut his career and personal life painfully short. He spends his days in confusion, raving in delusion about an all powerful man named Stuyvesant who secretly manipulates everyone in the city. When a young man is found murdered near his cave door, he feels an internal compulsion to find out what happened to him. As you might imagine, a man with his affliction might not make the most reliable detective, but Romulus tries his best and in between bouts of paranoia he makes his way towards weirdo avant grade photographer David Leppenraub (always excellent Colm Feore) who may have had something to do with the homicide. He also has a daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) who is a policewoman and somewhat resents him through her ignorance, and a wife (Tamara Tunie) who no doubt left, but still speaks to him in segments of his visions. Because his perceptions can’t be trusted, even by himself, it makes it a touch and go plot-line that’s heavily accented by frequent visual detours into his own consciousness, where humanoid Moth Sarefs hauntingly play unearthly instruments. Director Kasi Lemmons is not only a woman, but an actress herself, both traits which I believe lead to a certain intuitive advantage in filmmaking. I absolutely love how she moulds the narrative to patiently linger with Romulus’s perception of events and never make them sensationalistic or rushed. Even though Romulus walks through a dangerous, real world story of murder and corruption, the film always sticks with his childlike, abstract and very intangible internal view of the world, a choice which most films either don’t possess the courage or aren’t allowed to do. Jackson is subtle, complex dynamite in what is for me the best work of his career, playing completely against type and most definitely the opposite of his usual instincts to give us something truly special, to any viewer who wishes to exhibit the same patience and understanding that the filmmakers have strived for in making this unique piece.