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Panic Room   B-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Fincher
Writer: David Koepp
Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart, Patrick Bauchau, Ian Buchanan, Ann Magnuson.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Of all the characters in Panic Room, Forest Whitaker's sad-faced thief is the one that sticks with you. He's the only one you're likely to remember after the credits have rolled. A thief he may be, but he's not a bad guy. Like he says in the film, sometimes things just don't work out like they're supposed to. Sometimes you get pushed into things, not expecting anyone to get hurt, and then realize with a profound sense of remorse that you made a terribly wrong decision and it's too late to turn back.

In the film, recent divorcee Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have just moved into a huge brownstone on the west side of Manhattan. Next to the master bedroom is a "panic room," a virtually impenetrable steel chamber that can serve as a hideaway from intruders. The room has its own phone line and nearly a dozen monitors showing images from the surveillance cameras all around the house.

On the first night at their new home, three thieves break in and Meg and her daughter, who is diabetic, are forced to retreat into the panic room. The thieves are looking for a few million dollars that the previous owner stashed somewhere in the house. To their credit, Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Junior (Jared Leto), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) didn't expect the house to be occupied and never intended to hurt anyone. Oh, but ski-masked Raoul did happen to bring a gun. And he's not a nice guy.

Coming from the director of Seven and Fight Club, this film will probably be a slight disappointment in the eyes of many. After all, it's the most purely conventional and formulaic of David Fincher's films, offering next to nothing in the way of thought-provoking ideas to chew on. It's merely a thrill machine, relying on steadily mounting suspense punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence. Much like the 1998 low-budget thriller If I Die Before I Wake, David Fincher's Panic Room is a sly game of cat and mouse that's intense and thrilling at times, but occasionally stretches believability to its limits and relies on predictable plot contrivances to keep things moving along. Truth be told, it's not the screenplay by David Koepp (Stir of Echoes) that kept me glued to my seat, but rather the technical prowess of director Fincher and the great cast.

Fincher's camera roams around the expansive house like it knows no bounds, swooping over tabletops, through the handles of coffee pots, whizzing past walls, through floorboards, and even darting into keyholes if it feels so inclined. The photography by Conrad W. Hall (son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall) is dark, foreboding, and as slick as humanly possible. It's superb eye candy that never fails to dazzle.

Meanwhile, Jodie Foster is acutely watchable whether she's making a slow-motion dash to the safety of the panic room with the bad guys on her tail, or struggling to keep her daughter calm as her blood sugar level plummets. The rest of the cast -- with the possible exception of Jared Leto, who should be put on a leash -- is stellar as well, particularly Forest Whitaker as the most decent among the thieves. Whitaker, a big teddy bear with a melancholy gleam in his eyes, gives his character a much deeper life than he probably had on the printed page. It's easy to see how a relatively nice guy like him got mixed up in this mess, and it's nearly impossible not to feel for him. Sometimes things just don't work out like they're supposed to. And then it's too late to turn back.

Review published 03.29.2002.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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