$5 Bin Film School: David Fincher

Ever look around your living room and think, “I have too many movies”? No? Well, I do, and that’s what this blog series is all about. $5 Bin Film School is my attempt to work through the bargain bin/Half Price Books discount DVDs and Blus that I have accrued over the years. Some posts will be composed of short thoughts about a film; others might be deep-dives into multiple films joined by a theme; some might be essays about a film’s influence. At the end of each post, I’ll decide if I want to keep the film or get rid of it, and hopefully whittle my collection down to a more manageable number.

The first entry in this series dealt with a trio of Stanley Kubrick films; the second one was all about the “Alien” franchise. For the third entry, I’ll be looking at the only two David Fincher films I haven’t seen yet: “Panic Room” and “Zodiac.”

A simple reversal: ‘I’d never made a movie movie’

Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart in David Fincher’s “Panic Room.” Photo taken from Flickr.

“‘Panic Room’ was a very simple story that we chose to tell in the most difficult fashion,” director David Fincher told British film journalist and scriptwriter James Swallow in “Dark Eye,” Swallow’s 2003 retrospective of Fincher’s career up until that point. “After ‘Fight Club,’ which had nearly 400 scenes and almost 100 locations, the idea of doing an entire story inside one house appealed to me.”

Indeed, Fincher’s tale of a mother (Jodie Foster) and daughter’s (a young Kristen Stewart) first night in a spooky Manhattan brownstone looks like a simple film on the surface, but there’s so much more going on underneath. It’s an updated Gothic horror, Hitchcock homage (Fincher referenced “Rear Window” a lot to Swallow when talking about the script) and mother/daughter tale all rolled up into one, told in one setting. It’s a highlight of every camera trick Fincher had learned up to that point — there’s a really fascinating tracking shot that goes through walls, up and down floors and through the foundation of the house; a shot of Stewart’s diabetes medical kit being thrown was filmed more than 100 times. The script is tight and showcases every character’s motivations clearly.

And, it’s frequently funny, with Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam supplying much of the dark, twisted humor that is one of Fincher’s trademarks.

Yet, when people talk about Fincher’s filmography, they don’t really talk about “Panic Room.” And that’s a shame, because it’s one of his best.

“Panic Room” was released in 2002 and made almost $96.5 million domestically on a $48 million budget. The story is simple: Meg Altman (Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Stewart) move into a new house soon after Meg divorces her husband. The house has a panic room, where residents can hide from intruders and store sensitive items. Meg is unsure about buying the house because of the potential threats this might cause, but she goes along with it.

All is well that first night, until a trio of robbers (Forest Whitaker, Leto and Yoakam) break in to get into the panic room to steal a fortune that the previous owner left behind. Meg and Sarah must defend themselves by staying in the panic room. Oh, and Sarah has diabetes, and needs her insulin soon.

“This is a movie movie, it’s about what the expectations are about movies as much as our expectations about people,” said screenwriter Dave Koepp. “And it’s about money — Money is never the quick solution to anyone’s problems. It’s just an object that everyone’s after for the wrong reasons.”

Indeed, the motivation for the robbers is simple: they just want money. The thrills come from watching how Meg and Sarah get out of each predicament they find themselves in.

Fincher told Swallow he sees the thriller as “truly the guilty pleasure genre of moviemaking. Comedies are probably more important to the human psyche than movies that scare people, but it’s nice every once in a while.”

Foster’s acting carries the film, as she’s required to be both vulnerable and tough at the same time. The role was originally planned for Nicole Kidman and was written as more of a distressed trophy wife. When Foster got the role, it was significantly rewritten.

“In my opinion, Jodie Foster can play anything, but helpless is asking a lot of the audience to believe, because she just isn’t,” Fincher told Swallow. She was also pregnant while filming the whole thing.

As mentioned above, the film made just a little more than twice what it cost to produce, no thanks to the marketing.

“I said, be aware that if you go onto the internet and if you go into the shopping malls and you say, ‘Would you like to see the new movie from the director of “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” starring the star of “Silence of the Lambs”?’, you’re going to get the kind of cross-section of audience that this movie was not made for,” Fincher told Swallow.

Aside from the word of mouth about the “new movie from the director of ‘Se7en’ and ‘Fight Club,'” America’s cultural climate may have played a part in the film’s reception. Released just 6 months after 9/11, the film’s theme of protecting your young may have resonated with many people. But the film’s perspective on isolationism is that it’s unsafe.

“The film says, if anything, instead of thinking of a scenario where something bad can happen to you, you should be vigilant and listen to your instincts beforehand,” Foster told Swallow.

Initial DVD release

Keep or Toss? I loved this film, but the DVD I have of it has nothing but the film on it. Toss.

Hunting for a killer

“Zodiac,” Fincher’s sixth film and his follow-up to “Panic Room,” was released in 2007. It was not a domestic success financially, grossing a little more than $30 million on a $65 million budget. It’s not an easy watch; on top of its harrowing subject matter, the Director’s Cut I saw is 162 minutes long and the theatrical version is only 5 minutes shorter. But this film is Fincher’s masterpiece, a film about obsession from a director who is famously known for his obsessiveness.

“Zodiac” is a newspaper movie, but it’s also a true crime movie, and a serial killer movie, and a horror movie. And it gets all of those pieces right, from what a newsroom really looks like (a lot of fluorescent lights, tired journalists and often bare desks with lonely typewriters waiting for someone to come type on them) to the dread everyone in the nation felt during the Zodiac Killer’s spree to the way one single case can dominate someone’s entire career and seep into their personal life.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of cartoonist and Boy Scout Robert Graysmith is earnest, possessive and every bit as obsessive as the killer his character is tracking. With “Zodiac,” Fincher presented us with a probe into our own morbidly curious psyches years before the true crime wave swept America. Is it good for us to obsess over these killers, and where is the balance between delivering information to the public, and the exploitation of these crimes? Like the film’s (accurate) take on who the Zodiac Killer is, it doesn’t provide an answer, leaving us to question ourselves.

Special Edition Director’s Cut Blu-Ray.

Keep or Toss? Keep. The film is amazing and the Blu-Ray has enough bonus features to keep both cinephiles and Zodiac enthusiasts busy for days.

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