Friday, April 26, 2002
Directed by David Fincher Written by David Koepp Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forrest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam
Panic Room is sort of a peculiar mishmash of a movie. It takes a premise of suspense in the classic Hitchcock mold and dresses it up with the frenetic ultraviolence typical of 1990s action films. In the right hands it could be a real nail-biting, hair-pulling thriller. I would have thought that David Fincher's would be the right hands, but instead he has turned out an unremarkable, only moderately entertaining bit of fluff.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is recently divorced from a pharmaceutical tycoon, and is preparing to move to the upper West Side of Manhattan, apparently with a generous divorce settlement. As the movie opens, she and her teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are viewing an enormous town house with two of the most unpleasant real estate agents ever depicted on film. (One is prone to screaming things like "Kid! No elevator!" when Sarah touches anything in the house.) During the tour, the real estate agent reveals the Panic Room: an airtight, concrete-and-steel bunker off the top-floor bedroom, with closed-circuit television, emergency supplies and phone to the outside world.
Of course, once Meg and Sarah move in, the house is promptly broken into indeed, it seems to be their first "night" in the new house (everyone's New York nightmare). The burglars, moreover, apparently know about them, the Panic Room, and a few other things too. Junior (Jared Leto) knows about a safe hidden in the Panic Room containing millions of dollars. Burnham (Forrest Whitaker), who builds Panic Rooms for a living, knows about security systems. Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) well, Raoul doesn't actually know much about anything except how to hurt people. After a while I found myself thinking of these three as Larry, Curly and Moe. (This is unfair only to Forrest Whitaker, who as usual has managed to snag the most interesting and morally complex role in the film. His work is unfortunately wasted, since David Koepp's script doesn't have much room for moral complexities.)
The three men, once in the house, start for the Panic Room, which is naturally where Meg and Sarah hole up as soon as they realize they're being attacked. Thus the main story begins, with the two heroines locking themselves inside and trying to keep the three villains out.
And this is where the movie seems unable to decide what kind of tone to take. The premise is classic thriller material. A thriller is well served with a story that builds the tension slowly and steadily. Parts of the movie seem to recognize this. Fincher emphasizes the creepy, labyrinthine layout of the house with long tracking shots (but then undercuts their effectiveness by layering them with computer-generated special effects, as the camera appears to go between two bannister posts, through the handle of a coffeepot, and "inside" a keyhole.)
Indeed, the most effective parts of the film are the "slow" bits, in which the three nasty guys on the outside circle around like coyotes, and Meg and Sarah desperately try one plan after another to signal someone for help. I like the way Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart quietly communicated the terror and frustration of their situation. These segments are punctuated by bursts of intense, violent action. The suspense never has a chance to build, since it's constantly being resolved in little installments. By the end of the movie, I just wasn't terribly invested in the resolution, having seen enough mini-skirmishes to know that there were no great surprises in store.
Fincher's foreshadowing doesn't help. He seems to have taken Chekhov's "Mantlepiece Rule" of the theater too much to heart: if you see a gun hanging over the mantlepiece in Act I, then someone had better fire it by Act III. This is not a bad rule but it can be overdone. Early in the movie, not only does the camera linger for several seconds on Meg's cell phone, telling you that it will later become important, but a little while it does it again, apparently for the benefit of everyone who was out getting popcorn the first time. I could have missed the significance of the cell phone only if I had been locked in an airtight concrete bunker, which is perhaps why Meg and Sarah may be excused for not thinking of it earlier.
I was looking forward to this movie. Fincher's earlier films Se7en and Fight Club tackled such issues as the hubris of self-righteousness and the hubris of self-knowledge, and I was hoping for a similarly ambitious project. But Koepp's script doesn't ultimately have much to say except, apparently, don't lock yourself up in an impenetrable fortress when a bunch of psychotics are trying to smoke you out.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito