Panic Room (2002)Rated R for violence and language.
Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.
My Kind of Thriller
What a wonderful surprise it was to view Panic Room. I had spent quite some time during the last year complaining about the recent thrillers and how annoyingly obvious most of them were. I grew weary of the cheap tricks they all used, each recycled from one another. Think of the slow zoom-in that ends with something lurching. Or how about the first-person perspective of someone walking down a creepy corridor? Better yet, consider thrill-by-musical-cue, where, when nothing is actually happening, the violins crescendo and then -- suddenly! -- something that isn't normally scary flashes on the screen in a subliminal manner.
There is none of this in Panic Room. It's a simple story deftly directed by David Fincher, he of the dark and twisted sensibilities that brought Se7en and Fight Club to the screen. Those movies were more than a mere telling of their premises, and likewise Panic Room isn't simply a thriller. It is actually quite humorous for much of the time, yet during the thrilling moments every ounce of suspense earned the right to be there.
The movie is actually divided into three distinct parts. The first part deals with Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her pre-teen daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) finding themselves under siege in their own newly-bought New York brownstone. They have retreated in to the panic room, a sealed safety chamber used as a hideout during an armed attack, because three would-be burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam) have invaded in the middle of the night. The idea alone is scary enough, so Fincher uses this first act primarily to develop the characters, including the burglars. He also has a chance to dish out some black humor too, for these burglars aren't your usual professionally rehearsed movie bad-guy gang. They are refreshingly flawed people, and a lot of nervous laughs come from watching their infighting and their confused improvising as they try to find ways in to the armed hideaway.
Fincher sets the tone early by allowing the audience to get to know the villains. This movie isn't going to be about scaring the viewers through trickery and mystery -- it will be about the suspense created by the given situation at hand. Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp could have easily have gone for simple frights and made the bad guys faceless, mask-wearing marauders whose intentions are unknown. By letting us in on their plans, however, they lay the cards on the table so that all of those watching know what is at stake during each scene. How the situation plays out generates the suspense. (I believe Alfred Hitchcock would have approved. Wasn't it he who said that a bomb exploding under a table is a surprise, while a bomb under a table that has not exploded equals suspense? It's the difference between using a cheap scare and using a method to heighten anxiety.)
During the second act, Fincher abruptly changes moods -- suddenly the humor disappears and the danger is much more serious. The third act provides a clever twist, with the suspense coming from unexpected sources. The mood control for each of these acts is masterful.
Fincher provides his usual artistic flourishes for fun and effect. In Panic Room, the camera feels like its own entity, traveling in between floors and walls as it switches between a shot of the protagonists and a shot of the antagonists. Like a tiny bug, it also takes us inside the cracks of walls, through a ventilation shaft, or into a keyhole. It is raining outside and the inside of the house is shrouded in tinted darkness. Clearly, Fincher is in his element and this movie is the result of what happens when he is having fun flexing his muscles.
The movie is not without a few flaws, such as a finale that is, while harrowing, quite improbable outside of a movie's universe, and some plot holes that might leave you scratching your head after you exit the theater. But for the most part, Panic Room is extremely entertaining, with characters to get to know and get behind. It's my kind of thriller -- not once did everything suddenly become quiet, only to make the audience jump ten seconds later at -- gasp! -- the dog coming through the door.
©Jeffrey Chen, Mar. 31, 2002