Did your interest in "Panic Room" increase when you heard that Jodie
Foster had taken the lead role after Nicole Kidman dropped out? Did you
get excited when you learned that David Fincher, the man behind "Se7en"
and "Fight Club," was directing the thriller? If so, let me give you a
valuable piece of advice.
Get your hopes down.
"Panic Room" is just as simplistic as it looks in its commercials. After
the intense, nervy, multi-layered mind games of "Fight Club," I was sure
that Fincher would use the premise as a means towards some bold
statement, but he is on cruise control here, his ambition apparently
sated by the knockout title sequence and jazzy camerawork.
The story goes like this: Recently parted from her husband, Meg Altman
(Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) find a new home. The
multistory townhouse is spacious and handsome, but is notable because
the prior tenant, a rich, paranoid man, installed a "panic room." The
steel-encased room is essentially an aboveground bomb shelter, with a
stockpile of food and water, monitors showing virtually every other part
of the house, a PA and a separate outside phone line.
On the night they move in (a dark and stormy one, by the way), three
criminals furtively enter, at first unaware of the new tenants. Junior
(Jared Leto) worked for the previous owner and learned that the man had
millions hidden in the townhouse, Burnham (Forest Whitaker) helped
design the panic room and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) is a menacing third
wheel brought in by Junior.
When they notice the intruders, Meg and Sarah head into the panic room
and, over the PA, urge the crooks to take what they want and leave. Fat
chance. The money, of course, is hidden in the panic room. Fine, so Meg
and Sarah will just stay in their hidey spot and ride it out, right? Fat
chance. Sarah is diabetic and her insulin is not in the room.
So the game is on, with the boys against the girls in what amounts to be
a gothic version of "Home Alone."
Working off a wafer-thin premise, writer David Koepp tries to keep
things interesting, but most of his plot devices play like contrivances.
The cinematography is wildly inventive; gliding over banisters to slink
through lower floors, slipping into tiny holes, etc., but, given the
obvious plotline, it comes off as mere doodling (well, pretty nifty
As for the cast, Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart make a credible
mother/daughter team, though there is little for them to do other than
look grim, saucer-eyed or determined. Likewise, Forest Whitaker, Jared
Leto and Dwight Yoakam are generic menaces, although Whitaker's mournful
eyes suggest a depth of character beyond the obvious.
"Panic Room" offers some thrills and chills, but nothing that resonates.
Hours after leaving the theater, the only images that stuck with me were
those of the elegant title sequence. What a letdown.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott