You'd think by this point someone would be making suspense films with Alfred Hitchcock's panache, but the void stubbornly has remained unfilled. That's why you might feel an extra jolt of excitement as David Fincher's thriller "Panic Room" unfolds.
As he has shown in "Fight Club," "The Game" and "Seven," Fincher has a dazzling command of visual storytelling. At times, as in "Fight Club," he free-associates with images the way Robin Williams does with words.
That Fincher is stepping up to the Hitchcock plate is evident from the stylized opening-credits sequence - block letters floating in air against glistening Manhattan office buildings not unlike the cityscapes of the "North by Northwest" titles. Not long afterward, in a cheeky joke, a Hitchcock look-alike is seen walking down a sidewalk in front of the brownstone Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her teen-age daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are about to inhabit. The pair - and Fincher - don't hurry as they check out the new digs, and with good reason: The characters and filmmaker intend to spend a lot of time there. This fabulous building on the Upper West Side boasts high ceilings, looming staircases and many more rooms than a mother and daughter ever would need.
But Meg is coming off of a bitter divorce with a pharmaceuticals magnate and has no qualms about using a chunk of the settlement money to buy a veritable mansion - even if she betrays no joy in doing so. The tomboyish Sarah shows a little more enthusiasm for riding the elevator and rolling her scooter across the shiny wooden floors, but her disposition isn't exactly sunny either.
Still, the daughter is intrigued, while her mom is a bit freaked out, by their discovery off the main bedroom of the "panic room," a vault-like enclosure equipped with impenetrable doors, video monitors showing most of the house's interior, a first-aid kit and provisions fit for a survivalist. It's the ideal place to hide in case of a home invasion.
And on the pair's first night in the home, the room turns out to be convenient.
In a bravura camera movement that raises the ante on Hitchcock's dramatic multi-story zoom down to the key in Ingrid Bergman's hand in "Notorious," one continuous shot tracks mom and daughter sleeping in separate rooms on separate floors, drops to the main floor to show the invaders in the front and then the back of the building, darts into the front-door lock as a key is inserted from outside and then backs up to observe the nasty trio entering.
Again, this is look-at-me filmmaking but not in a bad way. You can't help but notice that the camera is passing through tiny spaces into which no camera actually could fit (thank you, computer-generated images), but Fincher is giving the audience a vivid sense of the building's geography - which comes in handy as the action proceeds to move around the house.
The invaders, who seek a treasure concealed by the home's previous owner, include the mastermind, Burnham (Forest Whitaker); his jittery accomplice with inside information about the hidden booty, Junior (Jared Leto); and the mysterious, masked Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), whom Junior brings along to Burnham's surprise. Burnham is the most developed and compelling of the bunch, a family man who, unlike the other two, has qualms about carrying out the burglary with people in the house. It's a perfect role for Whitaker, whose imposing body suggests a menace that his droopy eyes, gentle-bear demeanor and soft voice undercut.
Raoul also is intriguing as long as he keeps his mask on, but Leto's Junior is so wired that he seems to have stepped out of a different, less refined movie. Then again, as the three of them bicker and swear the way bad guys bicker and swear in any run-of-the-mill action movie, you begin to wonder how refined "Panic Room" actually is. Fincher mounts some clever, tense sequences in which the trio devises increasingly threatening strategies to force Meg and Sarah out of the panic room, only to be matched with improvised ingenuity from behind the vault door. But one can argue that these sequences would have been even stronger if Fincher had rethought his approach.
Much of the tension of "Rear Window," a natural antecedent to "Panic Room," in its use of a confined New York living space and the involvement (or noninvolvement) of neighbors, stems from seeing everything from the Jimmy Stewart photographer's point of view. He - and even the audience - is not sure whether the neighbor played by Raymond Burr is a villain until near the end.
"Panic Room" might have been nearly impossible to make if the bulk of the action were restricted to the inside of that high-tech bunker, with the villains visible only on the video monitors and audible just through intercoms and the noises they make on the other sides of the walls and floor. But such an approach would have made Meg's claustrophobia more palpable while replacing the banality of these villains with a much scarier unknown. Foster is tough, steely and even to some extent action-hero sexy, and we're with her except for one key juncture when Sarah makes a counterintuitive choice and Koepp's screenplay gives little inkling why. Stewart is a strong presence as Sarah, who has a medical condition that ratchets up the suspense further - sometimes effectively, sometimes distastefully.
The Hitchcock homages are fun - there's also a grasping-for-a-cell-phone sequence that recalls Robert Walker's cigarette-lighter stretch in "Strangers on a Train" - but it would be nice if suspense films had evolved to the point that filmmakers don't feel the need to pay obvious tribute to the master. Then again, the pretenders - including Fincher - miss one key element: the psychological depth.
Hitchcock's films leave you pondering the responsibilities of voyeurism, the duality of personalities, the tensions of sexual repression, the fine gradations of guilt. As taut and exciting as "Panic Room" often is, it boils down to people scrambling for a gun on the floor.
The message: Don't buy a house with a "panic room."
Directed by David Fincher; written by David Koepp; photographed by Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji; edited by Jim Haygood and Angus Wall; production designed by Arthur Max; produced by Cean Chaffin, John S. Dorsey, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp and Gavin Polone. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, March 29. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (violence, language)
Meg Altman - Jodie Foster
Sarah Altman - Kristen Stewart
Burnham - Forest Whitaker
Junior - Jared Leto
Raoul - Dwight Yoakam
Stephen - Patrick Bauchau
Evan - Ian Buchanan Lydia Lynch - Ann Magnuson
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.