Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam
MPAA Rating: (for violence and language)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 3/29/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
There are only two scenes in Panic Room that place its main characters in open air. The first is right at the beginning, and the second is the very final shot. In every scene between, director David Fincher creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the camera seems to slowly corner the characters. Even during the film’s most expansive and incredible shot, in which for a solid minute and a half or so the camera flies through a house allowing us to see the entry path of a group of burglars, everything feels confined. The camera covers a lot of ground but travels through even the smallest opening in its surroundings. The entire film has this claustrophobic atmosphere. We feel small watching it, and the constricted setting gives the film an added layer of tension. Using the basic elements of an effective thriller—an ingenious setup and follow-through—the film keeps everything that happens within the possibilities and restrictions it has established for itself.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) has just recently divorced from her rich husband, and she and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are house hunting. They are shown a large brownstone in Manhattan, complete with elevator, four stories, impressive rooms, and a "panic room." It’s a safe room in the master bedroom with monitors that cover the extent of the house, its own ventilation system, a separate phone line not connected to the main line, and steel walls, floor, ceiling, and door. They buy it, but on their first night in the house, a group of three burglars break in. Burnham (Forest Whitaker) works for the security company that installed the panic room in this house. Junior (Jared Leto) is a brash man with a hidden agenda. Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) was brought into the plan late in the game by Junior; his agenda and the way in which he will pursue it are volatile unknowns. Meg and Sarah manage to escape into the panic room, but when Meg asks what they want, in true thriller style, a MacGuffin appears—what the robbers are looking for is something in the panic room itself.
The conflict is that simple—the robbers want to get into the room and the mother and daughter want to keep them out—but the film is inventive in the ways it establishes obstacles for both parties. The obstacles, however, are not machinations of the script; they are commenced by the characters themselves using the rules the screenplay has already established. The main reason these confrontations work is the situation in which the characters find themselves. Neither group is prepared for what will unfold—both have tactical handicaps. The burglars broke into the house expecting it to be empty. The presence of residents is enough to completely distract them from their original plan and essentially makes it useless. This is Meg and Sarah’s main advantage. The burglars, on the other hand, know more about the house and, specifically, the panic room than the occupants. If the script ever stumbles due to missteps in the logic of the characters, as is typical of thrillers, it’s compensated by these character mentalities. The characters’ actions are on a need-to-do basis. If a character does something later than they should, it’s simply because they didn’t think of it earlier or never needed to do it before.
From Fincher’s own personal touches to obvious and subtle homages to Hitchcock, the film is a stylistic triumph. Beyond the above-mentioned flying camera move, Fincher uses a few other tricks. One sequence has Meg sneaking (until the time comes to run) to grab a cell phone in slow motion with no sound. One shot travels through the ventilation system and another through a small pipe. Shots like these are showy, but they serve a purpose as well. The shot that travels through the house allows the audience to understand the layout of the interior of the building. Most importantly, screenwriter David Koepp and Fincher do not cheat the basic intrigue of the premise and keep the proceedings entirely indoors. Hitchcock would often toy with devices like these, and the occasional references show just how influential Hitchcock’s films were to this thriller. The opening credits, where the titles are placed on buildings, are obviously inspired by the opening credits of North by Northwest. Two other instances allude to Rear Window—a character using a lamp to blind attackers and a shot that stares directly at an apartment window across the way. These homages are not simple throwaways, and the real homage is the actual tension that builds.
An important part of establishing the willing suspension of disbelief in a thriller is showcasing actors with the ability to create characters succinctly yet believably. Panic Room contains just those kinds of performances. As the two lower-level thugs, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam provide an interesting contrast. Both characters threaten violence often, but we never believe Leto’s character. Yoakam, on the other hand, is frighteningly serious in his threats. We’re never sure what he could be capable of, but we would rather never find out. Forest Whitaker offers a polar opposite to them. He’s the typical criminal with a heart but Whitaker portrays him with such sad compassion, it’s difficult not to believe his performance. As the young daughter, Kristen Stewart provides deadpan comic relief. It’s Jodie Foster, of course, who really stands out. She gives a strong but hopelessly vulnerable performance.
As easy as it may be to analyze a thriller like Panic Room to death, the film offers more than enough insight into its characters and situation to keep whatever flaws may exist as afterthoughts, and ones that are easily dismissed when placed within the context of other details. Fincher himself has called Panic Room a film of little substance—a "guilty pleasure." It may be in comparison to his previous work on films like Seven and Fight Club, but placing it in the wide perspective of many other thrillers, it most definitely stands out in the crowd.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.