Panic Room
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

David Fincher seems to make only one type of movie, and it’s not the uplifting kind. Obsessed with gloom and aroused by depression, he guides us through the depths of his high-concept underworlds that are predicated on thou-shalt and thou-shalt-not rules, with little connection with reality as we know it. They are ominous places, invariably infused with menace and infected by claustrophobia. But there’s always an escape hatch: As if scared of weirding-out his core audience of white, middle-class suburbanites, he populates his worlds with gorgeous faces and big name talent. Rendering the outré attractive for the mass market, he’s Hollywood’s answer to Darkness for Dummies.

Panic Room won’t disappoint fans of the Fincher genre, but it won’t send them into fits of goth ecstasy either. Building on Fincher’s fascination with the young and upwardly mobile, the movie focuses on empowered single-mom Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), who is recovering from a messy divorce and looking for that elusive thing, the fresh start. It comes in the form of an Upper West Side brownstone. Though much too large for Meg and her teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), a skate rat with a profane streak, it nevertheless promises to be the fortress of solitude they badly need, and it even offers a hidden jewel in the form of a panic room -- an impregnable alcove equipped with closed-circuit surveillance, a direct line to the police, and survival sundries. It’s designed to protect inhabitants from murderous intruders. The walls are made of three inches of reinforced steel on all sides, but the automatic door is the real kicker: guided by laser, it glides noiselessly but resolutely shut like something out of science fiction.

The layout of the panic room with all of its tricks and traps sets out in no uncertain terms what will eventually befall Meg and her daughter once night arrives. Inevitably there will be close calls with the automatic door, mute interplay via closed-circuit TV, and all sorts of improvisation with the first-aid equipment. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for David Koepp’s screenplay to confirm our predictions. No sooner do Foster and daughter settle down for the night in their new home when the monsters come out of the woodwork in the form of a trio of burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam) in search of, what else, money. By some means that remain frustratingly unclear, they are able to break into the brownstone without setting off the alarm or creating any other disturbance that would announce their presence to Meg, who it so happens is an insomniac and lying awake in bed. This dramatic improbability jars us from Fincher’s meticulously constructed world and foretells the movie’s tendency to slack off whenever the story shifts from mood piece to cat-and-mouse thriller. This happens quite often, and in our first taste of it, a toilet flush initiates a slow motion chase that is visually compelling but that feels fudged at the most basic level. Utterly predictable and therefore moot, it ends where we know it will, with Foster and daughter eluding the bad guys by the narrowest of margins as the panic room door seals them off in Mason jar isolation.

Here the movie eases into its most convincing chapter. Whitaker et al. set up camp outside the panic room and bear down on Meg with every tool in their arsenal. The loot, it turns out, is inside the panic room, locked away by the previous owner. So while claustrophobic mother and diabetic daughter want nothing more than to get out, it would mean running straight into the arms of the bad guys, who want nothing more than to get in. What’s worse, the direct phone link to the police from inside the panic room isn’t working, meaning that Meg and Sarah have no choice but to go it alone. Full battle ensues. Foster gets to do what she does best, playing a smart, tough woman cornered by beasts and forced to improvise. A propane gas attack sent through the vents by Whitaker provides an early test of her mettle, one which she passes with the help of a stove lighter and a fire blanket. But Meg is more bull-headed than clever, and as the hours pass, she’s rendered increasingly impotent by Sarah’s plummeting blood sugar. Survival demands she venture outside in search of insulin. Actualizing her motherhood with clenched teeth and a colorful vocabulary, Meg morphs into the prototypical James Cameron babe: muscled, profane, and butch-sexy in her undies.

If only Fincher had Cameron’s sense of momentum. As the ideas start running out on both sides of the wall, the movie loses its sense of direction, and Fincher has no choice but to open the playing field and diffuse some of the claustrophobia. This means more clumsy cat-and-mouse play and more general chaos as the trio of burglars disintegrates under the strain of constant bickering and the number of teams playing the game steadily increases. The deliberate breakdown of Fincher’s highly ordered world is in keeping with his previous films, but instead of going for broke as per custom, Fincher plunges head first into a thicket of action movie clichés where the only surprise is that there is no surprise. Twist-free, the finale feels quite literally like a sledgehammer to the face.

If the actor’s weren’t so game, this would all be unbearable. Leto, decked out in cornrows and hissing like a mad rat, creates some genuine chills. Whitaker, his partner and big brother surrogate, is the brains of the operation, a handyman moonlighting as a crook. He’s also the closest thing Meg has to a kindred spirit insofar as they are both intelligent and saddled with a weaker dependent. Always a good sport, Whitaker makes the most of the mish-mash of emotions the script forces him to undergo in the final hour. The third wheel (Yoakam) spends most of the movie under a ski mask. His identity, like most of the movie’s other points of suspense, is all build-up and no pay-off. His final unveiling reveals nothing, except maybe Fincher’s own waning interest in how things will turn out.

But maybe Fincher has something more insidious up his sleeve. Whenever Panic Room fails as an exercise in suspense, it succeeds on the level of pure, uncensored real estate porn. The movie is bookended by searches through the Sunday classifieds, as if to say life begins and ends with house hunting. In Fincher’s world, however, cruising for a home involves the same perils as cruising for sex, and an unmistakable whiff of necrophilia perfumes everything. Production designer Arthur Max has created an intimidating fusion of Gothic architecture and contemporary gadgetry and then drenched it all in rot and decay. His Manhattan brownstone is a large cadaver whose cavities the camera prowls like a rapist on the loose. We glide from room to dusty room, up and down staircases, across countertops and through walls. As the inner most bowel, the panic room seems less like a haven and more like a coffin for two. Take care in choosing your home, Fincher seems to say, or you might just end up living there forever.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Columbia Pictures (
Movie Web site: Panic Room



Photos: © 2002 Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. All rights reserved.