Panic Room

Jodie Foster locks it up

Main cast: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakum

Director: David Fincher

Starring Jodie Foster, whose acting talents I admire, and directed by David Fincher, of Se7en and Fight Club fame, for me Panic Room was a must see. I was peripherally aware that it hadn’t received the most spectacular of reviews, but knowing that Fight Club was reviled by some critics, this simply strengthened my resolve and heightened my expectations.

Panic Room is based on the central premise of a woman and her daughter hiding out from bad guys. This is the bare bones idea, which is fleshed out in a most unique way.

Meg Altman (Foster) is a recently divorced woman moving to Manhattan to go back to school. Living with her is her early adolescent daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), who is not thrilled with the change in her life and is frequently surly. With the help of her real estate agent (Ann Magnusen), Meg locates what seems to be the ideal home. Four floors, an elevator, a small yard, everything Meg is looking for. Her daughter seems less than keen, but that is her general M.O. Ann Magnusen and Ian Buchannan play the two real estate agents well, snooty businesspeople with some wry humor mixed in. Meg learns that the house was previously owned by a rich recluse whose children are now bickering over his estate.

The most unusual feature of the house is that it has a “panic room”, a small, well stocked room with a separate phone line and steel reinforced casing that allows the owner a retreat in the case of a break in. Meg is visibly uncomfortable in the room, and on their first night of occupancy she tries without success to disable the workings.

That very same night, a break-in does occur (what, you thought otherwise?). The intruders, Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) are in search of money left by the deceased previous occupant and are surprised to find the house occupied. Junior was supposed to have this all figured out. Junior, however, is dumb as a box of rocks, and proceeds to prove this time and time again. Leto (who also appeared in Fight Club) does a marvelous job with the role of Junior, lending the film a small amount of comic relief.

Meg eventually realizes a break in is in progress, and in the nick of time gets Sarah and herself into the “panic room”. Unfortunately, this is the only room the intruders are interested in, and the movie proceeds with a stationary game of cat and mouse as the intruders try and get the women to come out, and the women try and get help from inside.

In many ways, Panic Room uses tired plot points to move its story along (the phone in the panic room isn’t hooked up being one example), but at the same time manages to put just enough twist on them to engage the viewer. There are some very suspenseful scenes that have real “edge of your seat” moments, and these are played to maximum benefit. The camera work is wonderful throughout, with cut-through shots of the house as we are allowed to move through walls and floors to follow the action. The initial break in scene is shot from an interesting sort of panning, waist high point of view that makes it visually intriguing. The inside of the “panic room” is bomb shelter stark and an interesting combination of high tech gadgets in a very old house. The women prove resourceful in a McGyver-esque sort of way, which is juxtaposed nicely with the continued string of bumbles by the intruders. The score is suitably menacing, enough so that it actually foreshadows the plot points a bit too much.

The performances are uniformly good. Foster plays Meg as heartbroken by her divorce and steely in her protectiveness of her daughter. I’m sure that some viewers will particularly enjoy the cleavage baring tank top that she sports through much of the movie. There are times, however, when the wide eyed fright comes off as a bit false. Stewart also has a nice turn as Sarah, the surly adolescent who really doesn’t quite have the routine down to an art form just yet. The intruders are equally good, with Leto, as noted, turning in an especially good performance as Junior. There are several scenes where his arrogant idiocy is very funny, in a dark and twisted kind of way. Whitaker is solid, but not truly outstanding, as Burnham. His character is a bit too predictable, as is his performance. Yoakam, as Raoul, is mean, violent and all around bad news, but he also has an occasional funny (in an icky sort of way) scene.

Panic Room’s action and conclusion are exciting, if predictable. Made more interesting by the performances and the set up, you can still see where things are going fairly early on. I don’t necessarily think this makes Panic Room a bad movie, but it does keep it from being a great one. It’s is a solid thriller with some great suspense, unusual camera work, and good performances. I would recommend Panic Room for fans of the actors, or of the thriller genre in general. It won’t leave you breathless, but doesn’t disappoint in the action and suspense either. 3 1/2 stars out of 5.

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