Exploring Soundtracks: Panic Room


We’re back again with another article of Exploring Soundtracks. For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the films of David Fincher. So far, we’ve looked at the soundtracks from “Seven”, “The Game”, and “Fight Club”. Fincher’s first two were composed by Howard Shore, while his third, “Fight Club”‘s soundtrack was created by the Dust Brothers.

After “Fight Club”, David Fincher went back to enlist Howard Shore for help composing the soundtrack for “Panic Room”.

As we’ve seen from his work on Fincher’s previous films, Howard Shore composes scores that hone in on the emotional core of the film’s protagonists.


“Panic Room” follows the story of newly divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), who move into a new, New York apartment with a state of the art panic room, an impenetrable hidden chamber built to take refuge during a break in. When three intruders inevitably break into their home, Meg and Sarah start playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with them. They take cover in their panic room, but realize that even there, they aren’t safe. Because what the intruders really want is inside the room itself.

Panic Room

Throughout the film, Howard Shore uses the orchestral ensemble to create a range of unsettling sounds that sit below the surface of the film. Rather than building up to any crashing themes or distinct motifs, Shore plays it subtle. While much of a similar effect could be achieved through the use of droning synths, the lower registers of the orchestra provide a more gut-wrenching swell.

Fincher’s situation alone makes for a terrifying concept for a film, which may have been something that Howard Shore recognized when he was composing. When a suburban nightmare comes true, it doesn’t take much more than a few grinding pulses of woodwinds and brass to produce that sinking feeling in your stomach.

There’s one particular scene in “Panic Room” that benefits greatly from Shore’s restraint. It comes in at the halfway point in the film, when Jodie Foster’s character makes a dash for her phone while the intruders argue in the hall. The scene is shot in slow motion, and mostly in silence, which only heightens the suspense as Foster scrambles for her phone. Shore uses deep, rumbling pulses of strings and brass to mimic a pounding heart that totally absorbs you in the scene.

The climactic scene of the film features a traditional, thrumming swell as the nightmare of the home invasion comes to a head. While it plays a practical use of ramping up the tension, it doesn’t seem too out of place with the score. In fact, due to the ambient-like music of the rest of the film, it’s as if Shore was subtly turning up the volume to signal that the climax was here.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting to note the relationship between a film’s score and its composer’s previous compositions. For instance, Howard Shore composed the score for “Panic Room” in between his work on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”, and “The Two Towers”. You can hear traces of the Isengard theme in “Zone 19 Disabled”, with the marching clang of percussion. Similarly, you can hear a slightly heroic, slightly dark motif in “Castle Keep”, that may spark memories of both Isengard and Rohan.

These similarities are merely interesting to note for their own sake. I suppose even when you’re one of the most in-demand composers, a slight bleed-over effect can be expected.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack for “Panic Room” provides little when listened to as an album. Some of the uses of texture are interesting, and the tone works well in the film, but the lack of thematic motifs and dynamic compositions makes this short soundtrack seem to last longer than it should.

That about wraps up our discussion of Howard Shore’s soundtrack for David Fincher’s “Panic Room”. After finishing the film, Fincher took a five-year hiatus before his next project, “Zodiac”. Next time, we’ll take a look at it.

Track List

  1. Main Title – 2:08
  2. Caution Flammable – 4:51
  3. Working Elevator – 4:24
  4. Fourth Floor Hallway – 3:25
  5. Locking Us In – 3:15
  6. Castle Keep – 2:37
  7. What We Want Is In That Room – 3:06
  8. Zone 19 Disabled – 3:17
  9. A Very Emotional Property – 3:01

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