David Fincher may not be the first filmmaker that comes to mind when thinking about the perfect date movie, but he’s certainly one of the most fitting. Exacting, meticulous, and whip-smart, Fincher’s efforts range from the macabre (Se7en) to the thrilling (The Social Network), but all of his films are on a base level entertaining. In many ways he’s the closest thing we have to a modern Alfred Hitchcock—a filmmaker interested in entertaining his audiences above all, but also offering a thematic meal to chew on long after the credits have rolled. In two of Fincher’s films in particular, Panic Room and Gone Girl, he perfects the “date movie” formula in very different ways, and on the 15th anniversary of Panic Room’s release it seems an appropriate time to take a deeper dive into these two films and how Fincher masters this idea of the “date movie.”
Coming into Panic Room, Fincher was fresh off the divisive and commercially disappointing release of 1999’s Fight Club. That film ruffled studio feathers even though Fincher had been completely upfront about the kind of movie he was making, and while it was gaining traction as a cult favorite, Fincher’s brand of satire was falling on some deaf ears as viewers embraced the picture for the wrong reasons. But in signing on to direct David Koepp’s script Panic Room, Fincher had a specific intention in mind, noting on the commentary that it’s “popcorn movie-making, but it’s good B-movie stuff.”
Indeed, Panic Room works as a great date movie because it is an out-and-out thriller meant to take audiences on a ride, made by a master filmmaker. It’s the most purely “popcorn movie” feature Fincher has ever made. It’s a home invasion movie where the captives are separated from the invaders by a foolproof panic room door—although matters are complicated by the fact that what the invaders want is inside the room the homeowners are in. Koepp’s script plays out this scenario in thrilling fashion, finding interesting ways to turn the tables and shift the geography of the characters so the power dynamics are constantly changing. This keeps the audience on its toes, constantly asking themselves, “What would I do?”
And that’s one of the main reasons Panic Room makes a great date movie. It not only provides these great thrills, but it forces the audience to ask themselves how they’d behave in this situation, leading to lively conversation after the film is over.
But it’s not enough simply to play out this thrilling scenario—Fincher and Koepp also toy with gender roles in the film, as it’s no coincidence that the heroes are a single mother and her pre-teen daughter. When the burglars are surprised to find out the house isn’t empty, they wave off the threat of danger by saying, “It’s just a woman and her kid.” Fincher drives this point home, as the film is also about how men consistently underestimate women at their own peril.
Jodie Foster’s Meg and Kristen Stewart’s Sarah are smart, and they’re frequently coming up with ideas on the fly to throw the burglars off guard. This includes Meg embracing her femininity, as she uses sex to deflect attention when the cops show up at the door asking if there’s anything wrong. She knows a woman talking openly about sex will shut them up, so when asked what she said to her husband before the phone was cut off, she invents a scenario in which she tells him, “There are three things I would do to you if you came over right now.”
Fincher’s filmography is laced with feminist themes and heroines, and Panic Room—while somewhat slight in contrast to something like Fight Club or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—doesn’t shy away from offering something more, something thoughtful, something meaningful to wash the popcorn down with. That’s what gives the film its staying power. It’s not enough for Fincher to visually nail the telling of this thriller story; he also wants to give audiences a reason to engage with the material. It’s not hard to make audiences jump out of their seats, but it is incredibly difficult to make a thriller that will have them thinking long after the movie’s over.