A scene from 'Panic Room'
Courtesy Photo
*** stars 108 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, March 29, 2002
Directed by David Fincher

Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Ann Magnuson


The tension and claustrophobia this film produces may be even more acute when shown in the confines of a television. Not a keeper, but a great rental.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 09.17.2002


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Foster trapped in high-tech safety chamber during home invasion in thriller from 'Fight Club's' Fincher

By Rob Blackwelder

After "Seven" and "Fight Club" it's hard to go into a new film by David Fincher without extremely high expectations. Add a talent like Jodie Foster to the mix and it takes all a film critic's willpower not to fantasize about a movie so intense, well-acted and mind-blowing it would make "Silence of the Lambs" look like carnival haunted-house ride.

So please pardon me if I sound a little disappointed in "Panic Room," a polished, intimidating women-in-peril thriller that does almost no wrong except that it fails to be groundbreakingly brilliant.

Foster is in top form as a newly single mom whose surprise divorce from her affluent, adulterous husband has left her shaken, a little vulnerable and very uncomfortable about moving into a cavernous Manhattan brownstone on short notice with her petulant, 13-ish, tomboy daughter (Kristen Stewart).

A bit of a claustrophobe, she's even more uneasy about the house's "panic room," a high-tech, high-security hidden chamber behind her third-floor bedroom wall. Designed as a safe haven from any kind of threat, it has thick walls of concrete, a solid steel sliding door that slams closed at the touch of a button, a separate phone line, security monitors that cover the house inside and out, its own ventilation system and copious survival supplies.

But the room sure comes in handy when the house is invaded by three brutal prowlers on the very night they move in -- or does it? The isolated phone line has yet to be activated, the emergency supplies don't include insulin that the extremely diabetic girl needs badly and the thieves seem to know more about the panic room than Foster does. What they want is inside that room, they reveal by holding hand-scratched notes up to a surveillance camera. They're not leaving without it. Mother and daughter are trapped.

Unfolding the story mostly in real-time, Fincher builds solid (but hardly seat-gripping) tension in the game of psychological cat-and-mouse that follows, as the intruders try every means at their disposal to get inside that room -- and they're suspiciously well-equipped for it (sledge hammers, drills and more), leaving one to wonder just what they were up to in the first place.

The movie's most interesting dynamic is actually the acute animosity that exists between the crooks, whose personalities and motives are gradually revealed over the course of the film. Forest Whitaker is an employee of the security company that built the panic room. In some kind of financial dire straights, he's nervous about his role but was ripe for the picking by Jared Leto ("Requiem for a Dream"), a bitter heir of the man who died in the house only weeks before. The most frightening among them is former country crooner Dwight Yoakam as a violent, loose-cannon mystery criminal brought in on the job at the last minute by Leto. Unlike his partners in crime, he's come ready to kill to get his share of whatever their booty might be.

While the invaders angrily clash over how far they're willing to go for their criminal enterprise (they thought the house was empty and now have to change their plan), Foster and her daughter fight back as best they can from inside the 6- by 12-foot panic room. When propane is pumped into the room's ventilation system to force them out through suffocation, Foster ignites the gas in the vent, sending fire back through the hose, blowing the tank sky high and badly burning one of the baddies.

When the thugs take a minute to regroup in another room, Foster leaves the bunker to make a dash for her cell phone and her daughter's medicine, resulting in a heart-pounding chase back to the panic room with startling, table-turning results.

All the while, Fincher's distinctive cinematic style of crisp yet murky visuals and CGI-enhanced tracking shots (the camera snakes down three flights of stairs through banisters, floors, keyholes, and even a coffee pot handle during the break-in scene) enhance the movie's atmosphere of danger and place the audience in a unique position as a helpless observer. It feels almost as if you are the house itself, violated by the break-in, protective of your occupants but unable to act.

"Panic Room" falters in a few significant places, not the least of which is an inherent weakness in the script (by David Koepp, "Stir of Echoes") that requires the burglars to undergo a sudden change of heart in order to give the film its suspense. A plan to tie up Foster and her daughter while the men steal whatever they came for gives way to the implication that they might kill their hostages, because otherwise the women could just cooperate and there would be no movie.

The film also suffers from a Ron Howard kind of oh-so-conventional ending that includes changes of heart, symbolic gestures and a fuzzy-wuzzy epilogue that I can't go into here without giving too much away.

Without question, "Panic Room" is a robust thriller. But I expected more from a filmmaker as creative as Fincher. Of course, my elevated memory of the director's track record is willfully selective -- he also made the slick but second-rate "Alien 3" and the half-witted "The Game."


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