We’ve already gushed a bit over Mindhunter, which returned to Netflix for a second season a few weeks back, but the work of David Fincher and Co. on that series really can’t be undervalued. There are two scenes in the first three episodes of the new season — all directed by Fincher — that are particular standouts. The opening of the season is just masterful tension achieved with so little: a rope tied to a doorknob, a slight rattling of the door on the other side, a trembling hand reaching out to open it. Fincher holds this almost to the point of hilarity before letting it all break open. The second scene in question is set in a car, with Agent Tench interviewing a subject who’s had his face mutilated by the BTK Killer. Without giving away the device, the camera placements and shot choices make for an utterly gripping sequence that happens to take place in a parked car.
Both recalled Panic Room, Fincher’s most claustrophobic effort and possibly his most overlooked. It’s about as simple as a plot can be: Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristin Stewart) lock themselves in a well-equipped panic room when three burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) invade their new home. Coming off the comparatively bonkers Fight Club, Fincher still managed to turn this single-location shoot into a consistently twisty thriller.
At first glance the cinematography is an easy fit with the rest of his filmography, characterized by many of the techniques and visual signatures common in his movies and television episodes. The camera movements are methodical, unwavering. The color palette is cold, blue. The lighting is high-contrast. Everything, every doorway and railing and windowpane, feels somehow sinister. A sense of control pervades every frame, with little obvious spontaneity arising from the people operating the camera. Are there even people operating the camera? Or did Fincher just program a robot to point and shoot?
It was in fact supposed to be Darius Khondji, who had previously filmed Se7en for Fincher, running cinematography for Panic Room. Se7en, of course, had a variety of locations, fast-paced chases through buildings and across rooftops and down alleyways, and a gritty quality that allowed for a more flexible approach to shot composition. Five sequences were filmed in handheld, and a certain level of spontaneity is apparent and arguably essential. Eventually Khondji was nominated for the 1995 Outstanding Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers for his work on Se7en (he lost to John Toll for Braveheart).
But Khondji left Panic Room two weeks into filming, citing creative differences with Fincher’s meticulously pre-visualized approach to blocking and shot composition. This time, the film was mapped out on a computer beforehand and the set was built to accommodate that precise plan. There would be no handheld filming at all. There would be effectively no on-set spontaneity. The original DP was replaced by Conrad W. Hall, who was a camera operator for Khondji on several previous efforts. Conrad W. also probably learned a thing or two from his father, Conrad L. Hall, the famed cinematographer who shot the likes of Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Road to Perdition. Hall Sr. also won the 1996 Outstanding Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers for American Beauty.
Now’s probably a good time to note that Panic Room is the last movie David Fincher made on actual film, switching to digital for 2007’s Zodiac and never turning back. Digital was key to Fincher’s style, and as a notorious perfectionist the director was able to get his camera and his characters in lockstep more effectively than he could before. Check out Nerdwriter’s concise analysis (containing mostly references to Digital Fincher post-Panic Room) of this effect:
Cool, right? But in watching Mindhunter I suddenly found myself thinking, of all things, about the weight of Fincher’s camera. The calm intentionality seems such that you could chuck a boulder at the lens and it wouldn’t move. The roving camera makes little reactionary movements, yes, but there’s an overarching stillness that makes Mindhunter, Gone Girl, The Social Network and Zodiac into different beasts than those created by Young Fincher. That’s certainly reductive, but consider this long take in Panic Room, a smooth and seamless tour through the house augmented impressively by digital effects:
It recalls littler stuff Fincher used to do all the time, like the CGI-heavy shot emerging from the trashcan in Fight Club:
This fluidity isn’t totally gone from Fincher’s later work, nor is his later work at all unexciting for utilizing a locked tripod more frequently. In some ways, I personally even prefer his later stuff. To boot, this kind of focus on camera movement sort of discounts movement achieved through editing (think the “Hall of the Mountain King” rowing sequence in Social Network). But it’s still interesting that digital effects once seemed to give Fincher an outlet to do the impossible, to swoop through the house of Panic Room in a way that no human holding a camera could manage. Once digital became the norm, though, it’s as if a hefty string of weights was draped over Fincher’s camera, locking it firmly to the place it’s “supposed” to be.
Panic Room is seemingly unburdened by any greater thematic preoccupations, with nary a whiff of the commentary on technology or masculinity or obsession so integral to Fight Club, Zodiac, Social Network, Gone Girl and Mindhunter. Maybe there’s a thread to follow there, with the pure intention behind the film (to, as Fincher put it, make a “Friday night date movie”) lending itself to cinematography that feels similarly unburdened. I doubt it’s something we’ll ever say about a future Fincher project, for better or worse. Wherever it may fit in the director’s catalogue, Panic Room is a reminder that even a popcorn thriller can make for high quality cinema.