A superb exercise in eliciting suspense out of simple, progressively
sticky situations, "Panic Room" is a taut, exciting thriller. That
the film primarily takes place inside a single room over one night
and still obtains the ability to rachet up almost unbearable tension
is a testament to the superior filmmaking abilities of director David
Fincher (1999's "Fight Club").
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a caring single mother going through
both a painful divorce and the tedious process of searching for a
new home to move into with her 14-year-old daughter, Sarah (Kristen
Stewart). They seemingly find their dream house in an enormous Brownstone
located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, complete with spacious
rooms, an elevator, a high-tech security system, and a place called
the "panic room"--a steel-plated refuge designed to keep out intruders.
On their first night there, they are awakened by the sounds of three
men who have just broken in. Locking themselves in the "panic room,"
Meg and Sarah are equipped with camera monitors that conveniently
capture the goings-on in every room of the house. Thinking they may
be safe if they stay there long enough, they are distressed to find
that what the three dangerous men--Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Junior
(Jared Leto), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam)--want is in that very room.
Making matters worse, the diabetic Sarah is growing more and more
ill without her insulin shots and any sugar.
Ingeniously written by David Koepp (1999's "Stir of Echoes"), "Panic
Room" stands as a sterling example of how to make a thriller the right
way. Along with cinematographers Conrad W. Hall (1999's "American
Beauty") and Darius Khondji's (1999's "In Dreams") marvelously atmospheric
camera work, director Fincher makes the most of a film set in such
an enclosed space. One seemingly unbroken shot is especially a stunner,
as it starts off with Meg in bed, travels downstairs, through the
handle on a coffee pot in the kitchen, follows the intruders outside
as they try to find a way into the house, and finally goes into the
keyhole of the front door.
Fincher also uses the life-threatening situations at hand to optimal
effect, such as a sequence where the men send propane gas into the
air ducts of the "panic room," and another where Meg quietly sneaks
out of the room to find her cell phone, with the men right outside
the door. It is clear every step of the way that "Panic Room" is more
of an exercise in style than a deep, thought-provoking motion picture,
but it does it extremely well.
As Meg, Jodie Foster (1999's "Anna and the King") makes for the perfect
strong-willed protagonist. While her character is slimly developed,
Foster is so adept at subtlety and realism in her acting style that
all you really need to know about her is found in her body language
and expressive facial expressions. In newcomer Kristen Stewart, you
couldn't find a more dead ringer to play Foster's daughter if you
tried. Luckily, the young Stewart also appears to have the acting
chops to fulfill the requirements of the role. As the three thieves,
the always good Forest Whitaker (2000's "Battlefield Earth") adds
great depth to the most soft-spoken and humane of the trio, while
Jared Leto (2000's "American Psycho") and Dwight Yoakam (1996's "Sling
Blade") ably support him.
For all of the technical and stylistic artistry involved in bringing
"Panic Room" to life (the marvelously inventive opening credits sequence
is also worth noting), with the end credits comes a curious feeling
of having had a fun time, but nothing more. The film doesn't really
achieve much in its 109 minutes, nor does Meg or any of the other
characters go through a much-needed catharsis needed to make the final
moments more satisfying. Still, these minor shortcomings are a small
price to pay for a film in the thriller genre that is as genuinely
electrifying as "Panic Room" is.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman