BY LYNN LEE
Panic Room is a strictly by-the-numbers thriller, though it’s dressed up to be something smarter. Boosted by solid performances by its leads and stylish camera tricks by director David Fincher (Seven, The Game, Fight Club), the film ultimately relies more on technique and atmospherics than on narrative or intellectual substance. As such, it remains a cut above the genre without ever really transcending it.
Jodie Foster exudes her usual taut, fine-drawn luminosity as Meg Altman, a recently divorced New Yorker with oodles of money and an adolescent daughter in tow who buys an absolutely enormous, multi-storied apartment in an Upper West Side brownstone. The most salient feature of the residence, apart from its excess of Manhattan living space, is the “panic room” of the movie’s title – a high-security inner vault, painstakingly built to keep intruders out and inhabitants in.
Enter three unsavory criminal types: Burnham (Forest Whitaker), whose day job is designing security systems and who helped build the panic room; “Junior,” a spastic young punk (Jared Leto, sporting rather unbecoming cornrows) who’s ostensibly the brains behind the operation but is really its chief liability; and, lastly, a thug in a black ski mask (Dwight Yoakam) who goes by the name Raoul and who demonstrates a penchant for psychopathic violence. Not surprisingly, Burnham is the most sympathetic and intelligent of the trio, and as such, may pose the greatest threat to their victims – or offer their only chance at salvation. Meg and Sarah, her scrappy, resourceful daughter (well played by Kristin Stewart), take refuge in the panic room, only to discover that the phone line isn’t connected, and that what the intruders want is in the room itself. A tense, drawn-out cat-and-mouse game ensues, with the usual twists and turns, as the rain pounds ceaselessly through the night.
The most memorable thing about Panic Room is not the plot or the people, but the cavernous apartment (not just the panic room) and the profusion of crazy angles and perspectives from which we view it. The camera swoops up and down the stairs, around corners and through floors, vents, and holes – even keyholes – with a giddy virtuosity that almost makes one forget all the action is taking place within a single, enclosed space. Fincher was clearly influenced by Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the Audrey Hepburn thriller Wait Until Dark: The last, climactic sequence, in which stalker momentarily becomes stalked, pays pointed tribute to both movies. (Look, in particular, for the use of light bulbs.) But the overall effect of his fluid, dizzyingly mobile style is, curiously, to counteract the feeling of claustrophobia that one would expect from such a fixed setting. It isn’t fixed at all, the way this director films it.
Perhaps that’s enough to make this movie worthwhile. The suspense, the twists, the characters, the comic relief are purely rote; in terms of vision, Panic Room falls distinctly short of Fincher’s previous work. But given that his feats here are primarily visual rather than mental gymnastics, there’s no denying they’re fun to watch.