USA, 2002. Rated R. 118 minutes.
Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam,
Patrick Bauchau, Ian Buchanan, Ann Magnuson
|Review by Carlo Cavagna
ake a thriller and strip it down to its bare essence. Don't make it about theoretical threats to the entire human race. Forget the romantic angles and redemption subplots. Focus only on this: you are trapped in a tiny space in your own home, and you can't get out.
That's it. That's Panic Room, the latest film from visionary director David Fincher. Everything else is just setup. Briefly, the setup goes like this: recently divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her tomboyish daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into a stately, expansive brownstone formerly owned by some rich old coot. To protect against home invasion, proletarian revolution, or what have you, the coot commissioned a vault in the heart of the house called a "panic room." Encased in steel, the room contains a supply of water, camera monitors covering most of the house, and a telephone on an independent line. It is impregnable. All you have to do is lock the door, call the cops, and wait for help. Supposedly.
Ah, but it's Meg and Sarah's first night in their unsettlingly spacious new home, and they haven't hooked up the panic room's phone. Plus, the home invaders aren't after the stereo equipment. They want to get into the panic room, and aren't about to let a few inches of steel deter them. Panic Room is two hours of cat and mouse, except the mice are already in the trap.
Any weaknesses in the Panic Room come from the script, which contains noticeable plot incongruities1 and weak characterizations. The trio of criminals are stock characters, consisting of the none-too-bright one (Jared Leto in dreadlocks), the sensitive one (Forest Whitaker), and the complete psycho (Dwight Yoakam). Their relationship evolves predictably.
The script makes up for it by not containing any egregious implausibilities or violations of the laws of physics. The well-cast actors, particularly Foster (wisely choosing a role suited to her talents, which do not include warmth), make the most of what they're given. Fincher ratchets up the whole deal with his amazing visual flair. At times he is quite obviously showing off--like with the sliding camera movements (partly computer-generated) through the house, tracking Whitaker's attempts to enter via the front door, the back door, the windows, and finally the skylight, seemingly in a single take. Sarah remarks that the house is dark, at which point you have to wonder if she's not aware that she's in a David Fincher movie. Of course it's dark! It's green-tinged as well--another trademark of Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji--which contributes to the gritty, menacing mood, accentuated by Howard Shore's brooding score. The opening credits, much like those of Fincher's Fight Club, are a treat unto themselves, even though they have nothing to do with the story.
If it is possible to make a good movie out of a mediocre script, Panic Room is that movie. It's also the sort of film a director makes after getting burnt by critics for a high-risk outing like Fight Club. Panic Room looks edgy but the content is safe, big-grossing thriller stuff, designed to re-establish a director's dollar value. This may be simple market savvy on Fincher's part. If he continues to alternate risks with sure bets, he should have a long, productive, and interesting career.
1 NOTE with SPOILERS (if you have not yet seen the film, do not read): For example, why doesn't the panic room have an independent air supply? Moreover, when Meg talks to the cops at the front door while the bad guys watch via camera, she has every opportunity to let them know something is wrong. The bad guys can't hear the conversation. It would have been easy to say, "Don't react. We're on camera. We're in trouble. Leave calmly and come back with Steven Seagal." For that matter, once Meg is out of the panic room, she is free to use her cell phone to call whoever she wants. Finally, in the predicable department, why do ninety percent of these movies have to end with the money blowing away in the wind? Not only does Hollywood's moral message never change, Hollywood's way of saying it never changes either. These are minor gripes, though.
© April 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
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