PaNYC Room

Panic Room

Home Alone 4?

Life in the Big City, as seen by young optimists who leave small towns to follow their dreams.


To the untrained eye, David Fincher’s Panic Room seems like another suspense thriller in the mold of his previous hits Fight Club, Seven, and The Game. To anyone who lives in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or any of the other major megalopoli, however, the film plays much more like a straightforward documentary of their actual psychological experience.

It is what living in Manhattan feels like. This blunt factuality is the primary reason that the movie failed to perform at the box office, and why so many called it boring, uninteresting, and predictable. Since most moviegoers are city dwellers by demography, nothing could be less enjoyable than leaving your dark and drab apartment to escape to the movies only to be confronted onscreen with your dark and dismal apartment all over again.

bright lights

In the film, we see the familiar trajectory of every young optimist who leaves a small town to fulfill the lifelong dream of moving to Manhattan. The fact of the move causes family strife, with parents and siblings urging you to stay put, while you stubbornly insist that only in New York can the real you be discovered and appreciated.

The divorced husband represents your alienated but necessary family, on whom you have to keep leaning for constant injections of cash in order to survive financially and psychologically. In the film, this person is Stephen Altman, a pharmaceutical millionaire suffering so badly from Nice Guy Syndrome that he’s actually moved in across the Park from our heroine and her daughter just so he can continue to be the emotionally shipwrecked but financially stable provider and protector that he’s always been.

One imagines they’ve moved from a large northern Pennsylvania farmhouse (prime pharmaceutical real estate) after Mr. Altman receives his huge fourth-quarter profits off the sale of antidepressants, the only economic sector that surged after 9/11. Thus, the film’s title, Panic Room, is really a riff off their classified-ad, house-hunting geographic transition, and “PA-NYC Room” is really just a natural history of the claustrophobia that occurs when anyone leaves home to find their true self in Oz, the fabled emerald city that has historically turned into the prison of HBO fame by virtue of the whore of Babylon’s vices.

small apartment

Meg and Stephen have a daughter, Sarah, whose diabetes theoretically forms a crucial hinge on which the narrative turns, but whose hypoglycemia is really a result of her sugar daddy no longer being around. Sarah is forced into adopting and mothering her real Foster mother—who is as silent as the lambs and “tay in the ween” as Nell ever was when it comes to dealing rationally with any of the film’s scenarios—but the overarching realization she and we have is the universal smallness of the apartment. The promotional poster presents this well in the image of a scared Meg Altman lying in fear underneath the dark and demanding landlord figure who towers over her. What’s so scary? Why all the fear? The room is too small, the rent is too large, and darkness is closing in.

This is because, when you finally do get to New York, the psychic and physical exhaustion of the three-to-six month search and the relief at finally finding a place you can barely afford is so overwhelming that the actual apartment you find yourself holed up is much more of a radical rationalization than a real domicile. It is obvious to everyone but you, and is evidenced by the universal comment that all your friends make about New York: “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Your mother is especially concerned: “But honey, you’ve only got four hundred square feet. Where are you going to put the bed?” To which you glibly reply, “No, mom, you don’t understand, I don’t need a bed, because I sleep on the couch in front of the TV in the living room.” When your mom says, “But the living room is the only room other than the bathroom,” you realize just how glad you are to have left the small-town thinking of your home state, because it’s now clearer than ever that mom just really doesn’t get it.

New York syndrome

But you do. You believe you’ve found a huge place and gotten such a deal at $2,950.00 a month—you can’t believe how lucky you are. With your $60K salary (twice the national household income average and a clear indicator that only New York City can appreciate your real worth), you’ll actually have $550 after taxes each month to spend, spend, spend on such frivolities and fun as food, transportation, clothing, utilities, and insurance. In a city that requires twenty bucks every time you leave your front door, this works out to eighteen dollars a day. Your entertainment budget will sink to a dollar a week, with which you will purchase copies of LOOT so you can find all of the above for cheaper than they really are.

The Village Voice is free, and you quickly come to realize that the back-page sections of whores on sale for massage, masturbation, and marriage are not depraved individuals facing a moral crisis of confidence. No, they are simply people who’ve spent a little more time than you in the zip code of their lifelong dream. They are now using the only thing the city has left them with —their physical bodies—to leverage a better deal, subsidize their rent, and/or find a person wealthy enough or sexually starved enough who will.

In a city of 12 million, you will feel lonelier than ever. You will see movies by tapping into the network of theaters whose backdoors and emergency exits are easily accessed, and you will always watch two films for the price of none at the quad theater just so you get your money’s worth, since your time is worth much more than what is conspicuously absent from your wallet. In short, you will become a panicked rat in a maze of subways and Subways®, smelling cheese everywhere but always and only just barely able to narrowly avoid the steel trap mechanism that constantly threatens to crush your skull.

And crush you it will. If the city doesn’t extract all of your brains in one fell swing, it will succeed at least in the partial lobotomy of taking you hostage to Stockholm Syndrome. You will fall in love with your captors and declare that your servitude is freedom, that your poverty is wealth, and that your Cup-a-Noodle soup is cultural diversity. To your increasingly worried mother, you will say, “But if I move back home, I’ll never get the cultural opportunities that I have here in New York City. I mean, where else can I go to the Met, Broadway, Times Square, or the Empire State Building any day of the week?” And when your mom asks you the next question, you will belligerently but sincerely reply, “Well, no, I haven’t been to any of those places yet, but if I move back home I’ll never even have the opportunity!”

tapping the untapped

But don’t take our word for it—just move here, or else just see the movie. The claustrophobia starts, as in the film, on the first night. The panic room is not the “safe room” or “castle keep” of your apartment—the panic room is your apartment. The whole thing, from soup to nuts. The rest of the four thousand square feet that Meg and Sarah Altman have is not something they actually ever get to live in, and as such represents the fantasy dream world of the place we will get to, once our true worth is discovered in the city so nice they named it twice. And what is our true worth? It is the $22 million of unrealized earning potential that each New Yorker has buried deep within his or her self, that he or she sleeps on every night without ever discovering because it lies just below the floorboards of our dreams, in a safe-deposit box not even we know the combination to.

Only thieves, those soul-sucking corporations we came here to work for, are aware of just how much potential value we have to tap, even if only at the cost of drilling a hole in our skulls, our lives, our souls. The film’s three baddies, Burnham, Raoul, and Junior represent New York City’s top corporate enterprises: Media, Finance, and Fashion. These correlate to the city’s geography as Upper East/West Sides, Soho/Lower Manhattan, and Midtown/Chelsea/Gramercy Park.

dreams of going home again

Burnham, the only decent one, is played by obligingly-nice-black-guy-countertype-to-all-white-female-archetypal-fears Forest Whitaker. Clearly he represents media, as he is both seller and saver of souls and is seemingly named after Lester Burnham, the redeemed-through-blood corporate clone of Media Monthly magazine, that not so subtle homage/slam on Advertising Age or Media Week that was played out in American Beauty.

Raoul, the smart tough guy with the gun, knows what he wants and how to get it. He’s clearly in finance.

Junior, the Jared Leto pretty boy whom Fincher pulverizes in Fight Club and utterly destroys this time around, represents Fashion—and by extension, the fickle yet sympathetic nature shared by all amateurs who come to the city, realize it’s going to be harder than they thought, and decide to leave to go back home. The answer, you silly homeward-looking angel child, is “BLAM!”—you can’t go home again, not unless you’ve already fed the brain-drain here in the city, either figuratively or, in Junior’s case, literally, with his brains spilt out of his previously appealing skullcap. No clicking of the heels for Junior, despite the very red slippers he ends up wearing by the time he realizes, too late, that the City that never sleeps is a living insomniac nightmare.

Our protagonists end the way we end. Exhausted but alive, enjoying the sun in Central Park, doing what we’ve never stopped doing since the day we arrived: reading the classified ads, looking for a cheaper apartment. Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. In the constant quest for more room, the panic never stops.

posted by editor ::: June 29, 2002 ::: philms :::