Retro Review: Panic Room

The walls are closing in. I can’t breathe. Please get me out of here! These phrases are probably very familiar to people who are claustrophobic. The thoughts and associations with this fear are very difficult to bring forth to the silver screen. Well unless you are in a submarine movie like “Das Boot”.

In the new film “Panic Room”, Jodie Foster stars as Meg Altman, a woman who has recently been estranged from her husband Stephen Altman (Patrick Bauchau) and is looking for a safe home to live. Her teenage daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), is trying to help her mother get through her estrangement.

Meg and Sarah find a very large New York Brownstone that seems to be the perfect place to live. It was previously owned by a reclusive millionaire and has a very peculiar room. This room is small, quaint, and full of television monitors. The room is also packed with emergency gear and incased in steel. The real-estate agent refers to this room as the “panic room”. The Altman’s doubt they will ever need it.

Meg and Sarah move in and on their first night their safety will be put to the test as their home is invaded by three burglars in search of a hidden fortune. The burglars are headed by Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who seems to have connections to the house, next is the very slimy punk Junior (Jared Leto), and last is Raoul (a ski-masked Dwight Yoakum) who could be the scariest of them all and hired by Junior.

What will Meg do to ensure her daughter’s safety? What are the burglars after and how do they know it’s in that house? How will the events surrounding the “panic room” be resolved?

“Panic Room” is directed by David Fincher. Fincher’s style and interesting direction has really got him noticed in Hollywood circles as he has brought interesting looks to other Fincher films such as “Se7en”, “Fight Club” and “Alien 3”. His dark demeanor coupled with ricocheting camera angles are vintage Fincher.

In “Panic Room”, Fincher re-teams with his cinematographers from “Se7en” and delivers some very interesting and captivating shots that really deliver a “claustrophobic” feel. I liked the dashing across cupboards and counters then ascending through the floorboards.

Some of those shots reminded me of how Fincher photographed “Alien 3”. The camera dashing down tunnels from the viewpoint of the alien in that sequel really came to mind. But in those shots you really do feel like a “fly-on-the-wall”.

Jodie Foster has always rubbed me the wrong way as an actress but in some ways I enjoyed her performance as the mother.

During the film’s finale, I had a hard time believing her but during the scenes where she is in the bathtub and with the cops I really felt for her character.

The role of the mother was originally supposed to be played by Nicole Kidman who had to drop out when she was injured during filming of “Moulin Rouge”.

As for the burglars, Forest Whitaker plays the same kind of role he has played in the past. Leto is very slimy and very effective but the film really never lets the character flourish. Yoakum’s Raoul is slimier than Leto and reminded me a lot of the abusive husband he played in “Slingblade”.

The film’s screenwriter David Koepp is usually a really good script-whiz but in Panic he doesn’t really dig deep into the psychosis of these characters. In a thriller, we really need to know how these people think. I also was baffled to see literally no plot-twists throughout the whole film. Koepp’s script needed some help in maintaining the intensity but when you put 3-inch steel between predator and prey it gets very tough.

I really enjoyed how the film was photographed but it’s nearly impossible to maintain “claustrophobic” tension for almost two hours. The situations and conflicts between the mother and the burglars run out of steam half way through the picture. By that time all I really wanted was out of the “Panic Room”.

(3 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

Written: April 2, 2002

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