Friday, March 29, 2002
They're called the best places to be in the worst-case scenarios. From medieval castle keeps to Cold War bomb shelters, there's always been an excuse for rich, paranoid people to construct a way to isolate themselves from the rest of the world in the event of an attack that may never come.
For the modern-day persecuted, there's no better place than a panic room. This popular design features a sliding steel door, concrete walls, ventilation system, buried phone line and surveillance monitors that keep watch on the rest of the house. And it's disguised as a closet behind a full-length mirror so that nobody even knows it's there ï¿½ well, almost nobody.
Filmmaker David Fincher ("Fight Club") utilizes this confined setting as the launching pad for "Panic Room," a taut thriller that exploits every "Straw Dogs" and "Home Alone" scheme about residents trying to repel home invaders.
Jodie Foster stars as Meg, a recently divorced mother who moves with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) into a ritzy Manhattan property. Or as an uppity real estate agent calls it, something "between a townhouse and a brownstone ï¿½ a townstone." (Note the tombstone-sounding allusion.)
One night three thieves break in expecting to find millions in loot hidden by the previous owner. But what they haven't anticipated are new tenants. Before long, Meg and Sarah are holed up in the panic room, forced into an "outwit, outlast, outplay" scenario with a very tenacious group of crooks.
Most thrillers are only as strong as their villains, and screenwriter David Koepp ("Stir of Echoes") crafts three very vivid ones. What separates this trio of thugs from the garden variety found in other home-invasion films is that he avoids the tendency to turn them into raving loonies (a la "Death Wish"). These are real people, and that's why the cat-and-mouse plot is much more enticing: Viewers get to empathize with the frustration of the men at not being able to break into the reinforced room.
Forest Whitaker ("Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai") is particularly memorable as Burnham, the most humane of the robbers. With his imposing presence and groggy delivery, Whitaker gives a subtle portrayal that helps to ground the movie.
Country singer Dwight Yoakam finds a role that confirms his praised turn as the cruel redneck in 1996's "Sling Blade" was no fluke. Cloaked in a ski mask for most of the picture, Yoakam's Raoul is the real X factor among the thieves. His motivations are as shrouded as his face.
Throw in the coked-up and careless Junior (Jared Leto, giving the most over-the-top performance of the bunch), and the three become quite a handful for the resourceful Meg ï¿½ and for each other. Although the burglars' incentives center around greed, they possess different reasons for needing the money that reveal quite a bit about their own personalities.
And speaking of personality. David Fincher stands beside Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic") and David O. Russell ("Three Kings") as probably the best young American director working today, and his murky, textured approach acts as a cinematic signature throughout "Panic Room."
From the bravura title sequence (which digitally superimposes the cast and crews' names on block-letter signs atop buildings) to massive tracking shots of the criminals casing their target, Fincher is able to expand artistically while shackled to a claustrophobic setting. The filmmaker typically embraces dark and rainy locales, and here this preference helps to compound the isolated mood of the picture.
At times, though, his camera work is as distracting as it is impressive. Whether poking through keyholes or zooming inside flashlights, there's a lot of attention paid to manipulating inanimate objects. A viewer is often left admiring the technique rather than the intrinsic drama of the story. (The first part of the picture was shot by Fincher's "Seven" cinematographer Darius Khondji and, following creative differences, finished by "Fight Club" collaborator Conrad W. Hall.)
There will be criticism that "Panic Room" is a healthy budgeted exercise in style, or that it's simply an example of a great filmmaker forging a popcorn thriller. Well, maybe so. But better to experience a skillful and intriguing popcorn thriller than another lazy Hollywood throwaway. It's one thing to trap movie characters behind steel walls and another to make the audience feel like its brain is held hostage also.