David Fincher (“Fight Club”) has been one of my favorite directors since he burst onto the scene with “Alien 3”, but his choice to direct “Panic Room” is, in my must humble of opinions, a mistake. I believe Fincher is one of those directors who need room to work, but the claustrophobic settings of “Panic Room” essentially consist of two locations: the panic room itself, a room the size of a closet; and the New York house that the panic room is located within. With such limited and cramp spaces, Fincher’s trademark bright colors and ethereal cinematography is wasted.
“Panic Room” stars Jodie Foster as Meg, a recent divorcee who moves into her new house with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). On the first night mother and daughter stays at the house, 3 criminals break inside, believing no one will be home. They are shocked to find Meg and Sarah asleep in bed, but before the less-than-organized crooks can get a handle on the situation, Meg and Sarah seeks shelter in the panic room — essentially an invincible bunker built into the house’s third floor, located inside the master bedroom. The panic room has all the necessities to stay alive for a long time, including video monitors to keep an eye on the rest of the house, and an independent phone. Unfortunately Meg has yet to install the panic room’s phone, and Meg herself is claustrophobic, while Sarah is diabetic…
The bulk of the film involves the crooks, led by the clueless Junior (Jared Leto), trying to break into the seemingly impenetrable panic room. The crooks have a wild card in Burnham (Forest Whitaker), a security expert who helped install the panic room, and knows all of its ins and outs. But there’s a problem, and his name is Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), a mask-wearing thug with a gun and the will to use it. The main goal of the crooks is not Meg or Sarah, but the panic room itself, and the money hidden in there by the house’s previous owner. This revelation doesn’t bold well for mother and daughter as Sarah’s regular insulin injection nears, and her medicine is locked away in her refrigerator outside the panic room.
Written by David Koepp (“Spiderman”), “Panic Room” wants to be a taut and tension-filled thriller, but it has trouble maintaining both. Maybe it’s the conditions, or the setting, but the film just doesn’t have one hour and 50 minutes of tension in it. As a result, the movie has to throw in a couple of twists toward the end to keep things moving and interesting. Besides an unpredictable twist near the end where Meg reverses places with the crooks, the movie consists of a series of break-in attempts by the crooks and Meg finding ways around it, and vice versa. And between every attempt, the crooks bicker, stop, and bicker some more.
With so much running time to spend, Koepp has to throw in the internal conflict among the crooks. The gun-brandishing Raoul becomes a powder keg, but remains relatively stupid. The sympathetic Burnham wants this to be an easy job, but Meg and Sarah’s presence throws all of his plans out of the window and triggers his conscience. Jared Leto’s Junior is funny as the bumbling boss who doesn’t have a single original idea in his head. In an attempt to give the characters personalities, the 3 men’s backgrounds and motivations for the break-in are exposed through their constant bickering. Although I can’t help but think that it might have been a better idea to make all 3 men as nasty and bloodthirsty as possible, thus heightening the tension between mother and daughter and the crooks who wants to get to them. Why make one of them sympathetic, one bumbling, and the other a psychopath? Why not make them all psychopaths?
Despite a lot of creativity with the camerawork, “Panic Room” remains a rather blas’ affair. Fincher, as he’s want to do, somehow manages to move the camera through every crevice, floor, door, and wall in the house without stopping once. These elaborate camera moves were probably aided by cgi and special effects, but they look absolutely gorgeous nonetheless.
Jodie Foster, who has been picking her film projects very carefully in the last few years, is very good as Meg, the divorcee determined to keep her daughter and herself safe at all cost. Meg fights back because she’s not the kind of woman to lie down for anyone, and her quick thinking keeps her one step ahead of the bad guys. Kristen Stewart, as Foster’s daughter, sometimes gets on the nerve, and her smart-aleck comments and personality seems artificial, coming across like the perception of teens according to an adult rather than actual teen behavior. Country singer Dwight Yoakam, on the other hand, thrills as the trigger-happy Raoul.
“Panic Room” is an interesting film, with a very interesting premise, but in the end its own cramped space (and cramped script) does it in. It’s a worthwhile film, Fincher shows his creative flairs every now and then, but perhaps a shorter running time would have benefited the movie. After all, if your concept is this limited, wouldn’t 90 minutes or less be much more manageable than an hour and 50 minutes?
David Fincher (director) / David Koepp (screenplay)
CAST: Jodie Foster …. Meg Altman
Kristen Stewart …. Sarah Altman
Forest Whitaker …. Burnham
Dwight Yoakam …. Raoul
Jared Leto …. Junior
Patrick Bauchau …. Stephen Altman