“Panic Room” (2002)

If GM could roll out a Chevy put together by the hands of the people who put together the high-end Lexus models, you’d have a pretty nice ride. But it would still be a Chevy. Panic Room feels a little like that–a by-the-numbers thriller put together by a master craftsman. 

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) visits an upscale brownstone townhouse in Manhattan, looking to purchase a place to live with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), due to a recent divorce.  Of particular interest is a hidden room tucked behind the wall of the master bedroom on the second floor–a private phone, survival kit, video monitors keeping an eye on every corner of the house, reinforced on all sides by concrete walls, and locked behind a thick steel door.  Everything you need to survive the home invasion cooked up by the filmmakers to your endless peril. 

Meet the trio of invaders–the young and ignorant architect of the plan, Junior (Jared Leto); the professional, Burnham (Forrest Whitaker); and the muscle, Raoul (a very wily Dwight Yoakam). 

Once Meg and Sarah enter the protective womb of the panic room, the conflict revolves around the crooks’ need to get inside. A safe in the floor, says Junior, hold three million dollars. Soon, it’s a battle for each side to outsmart the other, and a promising start slowly begins to stumble, kept alive by judicious choices in the writing, and David Fincher’s inspired direction. 

Much of the film feels like a riff on some of Hitchcock’s more claustrophobic tales.  The story keeps within the walls of the brownstone for the duration, keeping the cats and the mice enclosed in deftly constructed maze. 

Screenwriter David Koepp has built a career crafting fast, punchy plots, and he certainly keeps things moving well here, delivering a perfect example of a bankable script: a handful of characters, one set, and a lean running time. Koepp’s penchant for one-liner wit, a cause for distraction in many of his scripts, finds its way into just about every character’s dialog, and even finds some appropriate use.  Any chance the dialog has to devolve into a competition for the best zinger, Fincher swoops in for the rescue.

Fincher’s approach runs similar to Robert Zemeckis’s work on What Lies Beneath (2000), supposing Hitch was to make a film with all the contemporary digital tools of today at his disposal.  We slide between walls, even fly right through the handle on a coffee pot, all to shape a fluid tension to help along the suspense.  Fincher knows when to keep it simple, however, and stick to the fundamentals.  The most suspenseful moment in the film doesn’t use a single visual effect–just plain and simple slow motion. And it winds a tight knot.

The cast turns in a fair performance, most keeping to tried and true technique we’ve seen a hundred times before, but Whitaker and Yoakam bring their game. Yoakam in particular looks nothing like the smooth persona of his music videos. Whitaker sticks to an understated criminal-in-over-his-head rhythm, and could have used a little more development.

The tight web of tension everyone manages to weave starts to weaken as the film enters the second and third acts.  Certain moments that establish set ups early on never receive a pay-off.  Little gaps in the overall logic appear here and there, particularly near the end where the film starts to borrow perhaps a little too much from the innovative thrillers of yore that inspired its creation.  Jodie Foster even steals a bit from Audrey Hepburn’s courageous actions in the closing moments of Wait Until Dark, but to much less impressive ends. 

In the hands of lesser talent, this film could easily have become a forgettable addition to the discount bin at Best Buy. Its flaws nearly send it there, keeping a brilliant concept from ever reaching the fully realized potential Fincher usually brings to his work.  As a follow-up to the impressive work he put into Fight Club (1999), Panic Room flies a little wide of the bull’s eye. It’s still a Chevy.  But Chevys ain’t all bad.

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