David Fincher's "Panic Room" is an intense, sweat-inducing, claustrophobic
thriller. It moves with the ease of a craftsman who ably pulls one visual
stunt after another, keeping us on the edge of our seats as the situations
grow more and more haywire. Like last year's "Joyride," it is remarkably
tense, but it is also dramatically hollow at its core.
Jodie Foster plays Meg, a rich divorcee who has just bought a three-floor
brownstone with her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart) in New York City. It
is a remarkable apartment, spacious yet eerie in its openness. It even has a
secure safe room, or panic room, in one bedroom. This safe room is secure
indeed, designed to make rich people safe from harm in case intruders break
in. It also has a surveillance system that keeps track of every single room
in the house. Meg likes it but suffers from claustrophobia, and chooses not
to finish securing it with its passcodes and installed phone line.
Meg does not have a cheery life, and keeps mum with her daughter about her
ex-husband, an owner of a pharmaceutical company. She drinks wine swiftly in
major gulps, and cries in her bathtub. She is definitely not a happy camper.
Even her daughter, Sarah, a hypoglycemic, seems adrift and aloof.
One night, three intruders break into the house. They include Burnham (Forest
Whitaker), a builder of safe rooms, Junior (Jared Leto), a slow-witted guy
with dreadlocks, and the psychopathic Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), who has brought
a gun to a situation that is a simple robbery. They are looking for a safe
that contains millions in bonds, and it is of course located in the panic
room. When Meg discovers her house is being invaded, she hides in the panic
room with her daughter. The room is impossible to penetrate unless it is
opened by the occupants in the room.
"Panic Room" takes place entirely in the house, that is its only setting.
These are usually my favorite kinds of films - think of the enclosed settings
of films like "Assault on Precinct 13" or "Reservoir Dogs" and you will get
the idea of what this film is like. Fincher keeps the pace swinging at a
swift, bloodcurling speed, involving us with Meg's plight and with the three
intruders who conspire, bicker, argue and finally come apart in their endless
attempts to get the money. It is all about survival, and Fincher is brilliant
at keeping us scared, as well as exploring the house itself through crevices,
phone wiring, outlets, keyholes, etc. In other words, everything we take for
granted is used as a means of survival, on both sides of this cat and mouse
As thrilling as all of this is, "Panic Room" never stops to make observations
on who these people are. For one, Meg is barely given much character
development at all, and her scene in the bathtub ilustrates a side of her
that is never tapped into again. We must also not forget she is
claustrophobic, yet the movie carelessly avoids making that point again since
she is after all in the confined panic room through the whole film. I
expected more from her character than merely reactions and physical activity,
especially since she is played by Jodie Foster, who turned down "Hannibal"
because the Clarice Starling role was severely truncated and she did not
agree with the character's behavior. Meg is no doubt the most physically
demanding role Foster has ever played, but it is a two-dimensional character
or did Jodie not notice.
The three burglars have interesting personalities, and the movies spends its
time studying their interaction. Forest Whitaker is the ambiguous antihero,
Jared Leto is the overcaffeinated, extremely dumb wise ass, and Dwight Yoakam
is the chillingly laconic psycho, ready to kill anyone.
"Panic Room" is quite a wild ride and, on that basis, I give it high marks.
It is a well-oiled thrill machine, expertly directed and acted. I just
expected something more of a psychological thriller than a standard issue one
coming from the combined forces of David Fincher and Jodie Foster.
Copyright © 2002 Jerry Saravia