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Don't Panic

 

Panic Room

David Fincher, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: April 1, 2002

By Laurence Station

David Fincher's latest thriller, Panic Room, opens with credits titled against a variety of Manhattan skyscrapers. This direct lift from Hitchcock's North by Northwest signals the audience that suspense will be the order of the day. Unlike that classic Cary Grant cross-country chase vehicle, however, Panic Room proves a claustrophobic, intensely residential affair, complete with cat-and-mousetrap gimmicks and a host of intriguing -- if not entirely fulfilled -- possibilities.

The plot centers around recent divorcee Meg Altman (capably handled by Jodie Foster) and her diabetic 11-year-old daughter Sarah (a confident, appealing Kristen Stewart), who move into a large Manhattan brownstone that comes complete with its own fortress-like panic room. Apparently, the previous owner felt that the steel-reinforced hideaway off the master bedroom would be a useful place for his valuables.

Unfortunately, three burglars break in the night after Meg and Sarah settle in, aware of the loot stashed in the hidden room and determined to make a big score.

The true action begins once the trio of robbers -- Burnham (an always solid Forest Whitaker), Junior (a nicely bratty Jared Leto) and the menacing, ski mask-wearing Raoul (a better-off-masked Dwight Yoakam) -- realize they're not alone in the house. Much of the action involves the bad guys cooking up ways to get into the room, as the mother-daughter tandem tries to figure a way out of their protective but prison-like safe house.

The motivations of at least two of the criminals are well sketched: The cash-needy Burnham works for the company that built the panic room and knows where the safe is located, while Junior is the grandson of the old financier and wants a larger share of the inheritance. Raoul, however, remains a mystery, which turns out to be the film's weakest point. While the other two thieves want nothing more than the loot, Raoul is just plain psychotic, determined to find any excuse to harm Meg and Sarah. A better justification of what makes Raoul tick would have aided greatly in upping the ante for all involved. As it stands, he becomes a motiveless maniac who undermines the psychological subtlety Fincher strives for. What could have been an engaging battle of wits ultimately devolves into a savage confrontation, weakening the film's impact and reducing three-dimensional characters to automated, sledgehammer-wielding puppets.

David Koepp's script has a smartly written setup, and, despite the crudity of the third act, stays true to its insular, darkly-shaded study of domestic terrorism. Conrad W. Hall's camerawork is outrageously involved, snaking through walls and air ducts to give us every possible vantage point of the multi-tiered home. And Howard Shore's score proves appropriately somber and brooding, providing a nice contrast to the epic, Oscar winning work he did on Lord of the Rings, by accentuating the key dramatic moments without overplaying them.

Ultimately, it's the director's choices for the finale that knock Panic Room down a few notches: Fincher is clearly enamored with the potency of Hitchcock's work, but he's still learning the ropes when it comes to employing that all-important less-is-more approach to on-camera violence.

 
Home Is Where the Horror Is
Those hungry for more domestic break-in movies should definitely check out Wait Until Dark, Terence Young's masterful 1967 study in suspense starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind housewife fending off a gang of intruders in search of a heroin-filled doll.

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