Rated R - Running Time: 1:52 - Released 3/29/02

It's unfortunate that Jodie Foster, one of my favorite actors who has done such great work in films like The Accused, The Silence Of The Lambs, and Contact, should choose to star in such a dumb thriller as Panic Room. But Foster apparently wasn't the first choice for this film, directed by David Fincher (The Game, Fight Club); she reportedly replaced Nicole Kidman, who was suffering from a knee injury sustained while filming Moulin Rouge. Written by David Koepp, co-writer/director of Stir Of Echoes, Panic Room's script is one of those frustrating types that takes an interesting idea and nearly ruins it with plot holes and logical discrepancies. Instead of being scared, we end up counting the characters' dumb decisions. There are plenty to go around.

Panic Room begins with a short prologue in which recently divorced single mom Meg Altman (Foster) and her teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into a huge Manhattan house. The spacious, three-floor home has an elaborate security system installed by the paranoid previous tenant, which includes a secret room in which the residents may take refuge if and when there are criminal intruders. Fashioned out of thick, reinforced steel, this "panic room" is actually more like a maximum security prison cell, but includes a secure phone line, numerous TV monitors showing views of nearly every inch of the house, a toilet, and enough provisions that you can camp out there if your burglars decide to take up semi-permanent residency, as burglars so often do. Meg is understandably creeped out by the room, especially since she suffers from claustrophobia, but she doesn't think she'll ever need it. Then, in the middle of their first rainy night there, wouldn't you know it, someone breaks in.

The three burglars (leader Jared Leto, security system specialist/safecracker Forest Whitaker, and general bad guy Dwight Yoakam) are after $3 million which is hidden in the house, and it is only after Meg and Sarah lock themselves in the panic room that we learn the money is in there with them. Thus begins a chess game in which the burglars, whom Meg can see but not hear, try to get her to come out and give up the dough, and she and Sarah, who can be heard but not seen (there is a P.A. system), try to get them to leave. But there are complications on both sides of the door, as the criminal trio's disagreements threaten to upset their operation, and the two victims face a life-and-death struggle unrelated to the events outside.

This is undoubtedly a clever premise, but the story is so riddled with stupid choices by the characters, its effectiveness as a thriller suffers greatly. One finds oneself thinking over and over, "Why doesn't (s)he just..." These mental lapses are committed by all characters alike; the only reason the film is remotely enjoyable is the calibre of acting, especially on Foster's part, and director Fincher's admittedly impressive knack for good cinema. Used especially in the first half of the film when the tension is created more by atmosphere than action, the distinctive camera work includes continuous tracking shots moving through keyholes, coffee pot handles, solid walls and floors, giving a sense of what is going on at the same time in various parts of the cavernous home.

All in all, Panic Room is in equal parts humorous and creepy, tense and preposterous, unlikely and scary. But even if it misses the mark on the thriller elements, it is at least stylish enough to be watchable. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail