Screenplay : David Koepp
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Jodie Foster (Meg Altman), Kristen Stewart (Sarah Altman), Forest Whitaker (Burnham), Jared Leto (Junior), Dwight Yoakam (Raoul), Patrick Bauchau (Stephen), Ian Buchanan (Evan), Ann Magnuson (Lydia Lynch)
David Fincher's Panic Room is a first-rate nail biter, a taut, claustrophobic thriller that is part modern Hitchcock and part Peckinpah with a gender twist. Although little more than a slick exercise in cinematic suspense, it delivers in every area promised. Some critics may complain that it lacks any real meaning, especially after Fincher's Fight Club (1999), a film so deeply immersed in social critique that it wasn't until it could be viewed numerous times on home video that many people finally began to get it. Panic Room, on the other hand, is a stripped-down thriller, the cinematic equivalent of a great jam session with just the bare essentials and no extraneous frills.
With the exception of a few shots at the beginning of the film and a brief scene at the end, the entire story takes place within the confined walls of an haute Manhattan brownstone. Granted, this isn't your ordinary urban residence, even by Manhattan standards--it's four stories of hardwood floors and high ceilings and features an elevator and high-tech security system. But, its best feature is the panic room, the modern equivalent of the castle keep--the last place to hold out in case of invasion. Surrounded by four feet of concrete and steel, equipped with a bank of video monitors that cover virtually every square inch of the house and its own buried phone line, and cordoned off by a very thick steel door, the panic room is every paranoiac's wet dream.
This unique brownstone is purchased by Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a woman recently divorced from a pharmaceutics millionaire (Patrick Bauchau). The very first night she and her 13-year-old daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), are in the house, it is invaded by three men (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam) who are looking for something stashed away in a floor safe by the house's previous owner. Meg and Sarah managed to escape into the panic room where they are sealed away safely. The only problem is that the floor safe is in the panic room with them, and the three intruders aren't leaving until either they get inside or the mother and daughter come out.
Once screenwriter David Koepp's (Mission: Impossible, Stir of Echoes) set-up is in place, Fincher goes to work playing out what is essentially a chess match of life-and-death proportions. Using a sometimes dizzying array of complex tracking shots that move through banisters, keyholes, and, at one point, the handle of a coffee pot, he turns the enormous space within the brownstone into its own character--something to be either conquered or defended. What would at first seem to be a dead-end stalemate--the men are outside and can't get in, the women are trapped inside and have no phone line to call out from (Meg never hooked it up)--slowly becomes more and more complicated. The men try all means to flush Meg and Sarah out, including filling the panic room with propane gas. Meg and Sarah retaliate with stealth missions outside the room, once to retrieve a cellular phone and later to get Sarah's insulin shot, as her diabetic condition eventually raises the stakes of the game.
As Hitchcock understood in thrillers of this sort, the characters have to be interesting--complex without being obtuse. Our sympathies with Meg and Sarah are virtually a given. After all, who couldn't sympathize with a determined single mother and her feisty, but diabetic daughter, or at least identify with that twinge of fear and anger that accompanies any thought of someone intruding on his or her home? Rather, the more interesting character dynamics are among the three intruders, who are hardly on the same page. Whitaker's character is a man of desperation, a security expert who builds panic rooms for a living and isn't interested in violence. Leto and Yoakam's characters, however, are far less sympathetic, particularly Yoakam, who grows steadily more sadistic and psychotic until, by the end, he is virtually a monster from a horror movie.
At times, one is obliquely reminded of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), a violent, some would argue misogynistic, masterpiece about the terrible inevitability of violence when men are backed against the wall. Peckinpah was speaking to the ultimate futility of pacifism in a violent world, but what Fincher and Koepp deliver is an intriguing gender reversal of that dynamic--instead of the cliched masculine figure defending his hearth and home when pushed past his limit, we are given a single woman driven to violent extremes to defend her family from intrusion (this is underscored when her ex-husband, who in a conventional story might be the savior, arrives on the doorstep and is quickly beaten into submission). Panic Room is, quite simply, a gritty tale of survival, a paean to that great human impulse to live at all costs.
As in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jodie Foster is an utterly convincing heroine, one who appears average but is plausibly capable of great acts of heroism. Yet, her heroism is plausible precisely because it is done out of fear and desperation. When Foster is frantically digging beneath an overturned bed looking for a cell phone, we get the stomach-clinching sensation of utter panic and horror, not routine excitement. This is heightened visually by Fincher's decision to use slow motion and silence, which helps us focus on Foster's enormous eyes, clinched face, and increasingly frantic movements.
For all the would-be thrillers that pass in and out of theaters these days, it's a treat to get one as finely tuned and single-minded in its intensity as Panic Room. David Fincher continues to prove that he is one of the most consistently engaging and visually inventive directors to emerge during the last decade. Credit should be given to Koepp's screenplay (even though it seems to run out of gas near the climax), but the film ultimately succeeds because of Fincher's stunning visual prowess and implicit understanding of how the viewer's mind works. As Hitchcock noted in discussing Psycho (1960), "It wasn't a message that stirred audiences. They were aroused by pure film."
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick