‘Panic,’ but Little Urgency
“It’s called a panic room,” the snarky real estate person says to prospective house buyer Meg Altman (Jodie Foster). It’s the modern version of the castle keep, a specially equipped spot with a door of steel designed to be a refuge when burglars invade your space. Because they can’t get in, you feel safe.
If only it were that simple.
The house on New York’s Upper West Side, all four stories and 4,000-plus square feet of it, including an elevator and six working fireplaces, was most recently the home of a reclusive billionaire. Funny thing, the real estate woman says, they can’t seem to find big chunks of his money.
None of that matters much to Ms. Altman. Recently divorced from the wealthy Mr. Altman, she wants someplace her snarly daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), can be happy. (As if.) Never mind that the house is so grim and gloomy it makes the Addams Family place look like Sunnybrook Farm. I’ll take it, she says, and I’ll worry about completely hooking up that complicated security system in the morning, after a good night’s sleep in my requisite low-cut top.
Other people have their eye on that house. Bad people. Very bad people. They break into the place on the family’s very first night, and fleeing to the panic room is not the help it might be. Because, wouldn’t you know it, what the bad people want just happens to be in that very room.
Let the games begin.
In outline, “Panic Room’s” cat-and-mouse maneuvers between good and evil in the same enclosed space is unapologetically derivative, familiar from films as serious as the Audrey Hepburn-starring “Wait Until Dark” and as silly as “Home Alone.”
What’s surprising about this traditional thriller, moderately successful but not completely satisfying, is exactly how genteel and unsurprising the execution turns out to be.
For “Panic Room’s” director is David Fincher, the proficient albeit icy technician behind films like “Seven” and “Fight Club,” a painstaking craftsman who cares only about making audiences squirm.
Working with cinematographers Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji from David Koepp’s intricately worked out script, Fincher again demonstrates undeniable visual flair. There are swooping, insinuating camera moves, disconcerting rolls and tumbles, and all manner of bravura displays.
But if Koepp’s script is good on structure, it is, as is often the case (as co-writer on “Jurassic Park,” “Snake Eyes” and “Death Becomes Her”), on less secure ground with dialogue and characterization, which hampers Foster’s attempts to make Meg Altman a completely realized individual.
Always an actress with presence, Foster initially downplays her intelligence and her spunkiness, giving us Meg as a mousy type who might fear her own shadow, the complete opposite of “The Silence of the Lambs’” determined Clarice Starling. With pro forma lines like “This is not happening” and “Try and stay calm,” Foster never manages to create the kind of connection with her character that Nicole Kidman, for instance, manages in a different kind of traditional thriller, “The Others.”
The film’s bad guys have even less dimension. The invaders’ nominal commander is Junior (Jared Leto), although he has such limited leadership abilities, he didn’t even know the house was occupied. The smartest and most decent of the group is Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who proceeds with the crime very much against his better judgment. Then there is Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), the ski-mask-wearing, card-carrying psycho no film like this can do without.
Although Fincher’s gift is for wringing people out, he chooses not to pump up the volume this time. One result is that when one of its undeniably efficient set pieces isn’t unfolding, “Panic Room” unwittingly provides enough downtime to consider the implausible things characters do and say, and that makes the film less convincing.
Finally, “Panic Room” is perhaps best described as the work of a torturer who’s taken the day off. On the one hand, you’re deeply grateful for the respite, but on the other, the perverse thought arises that when the man isn’t dishing out torment, what’s he got to replace it with? A devilish dilemma indeed.
MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: some particularly nasty beatings.
Jodie Foster...Meg Altman
A Hofflund Polone production of an Indelible Picture, released by Columbia Pictures. Director David Fincher. Producers Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp, Cean Chaffin. Screenplay David Koepp. Cinematographers Conrad W. Hall, Darius Khondji. Editors James Haygood, Angus Wall. Costumes Michael Kaplan. Music Howard Shore. Production design Arthur Max. Art directors Keith Neely, James E. Tocci. Set decorators Jon Danniells, Garrett Lewis. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.