Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
When you see a movie directed by David Fincher, you literally donít know what to expect. By that I donít mean that heís the most original director you can find, but his films tend to violate viewer expectations. Fincherís first four releases werenít always stellar; 1997ís The Game seemed very disappointing, while 1992ís Alien 3 and 1999ís Fight Club mostly succeeded, but not wholly. Only 1995ís brilliant Se7en showed Fincher at his full potential.
Despite some misfires along the way, one thing remained consistent: Fincher kept the audience guessing. Because of that, I feel more on edge than usual when I see one of his films, and that definitely occurred as I screened his newest flick, 2002ís Panic Room. Even when the movie strayed into formulaic territory, Fincherís rep preceded him, which meant that I second-guessed options and decisions.
Does Panic Room often become predictable? Not really, though it didnít violate the rules as much as some of Fincherís prior films. While perhaps not as adventurous as those, Panic still offered a fairly tight and engrossing little thriller.
At the start of the film, we meet newly single mother Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and pre-teen daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) as they acquire a gorgeous new Manhattan home. A grad school student, Megís pharmaceutical tycoon husband Stephen (Patrick Bachau) recently left her for another woman, and mom and daughter resettle in an abode close to him so Sarah can have easy contact with both parents.
On their first night in the new brownstone, crooks come calling. Led by hyper Junior (Jared Leto), the son of the now deceased and very wealthy prior owner of the property, they arrive in search of money hidden within its chambers. He brings Burnham (Forest Whitaker), a veteran security system installer, and Raoul (Dwight Yoakum), the wild card of the bunch; he insists on wearing a ski mask the whole time, and he seems more than slightly unstable.
This crew doesnít expect anyone to be home, so the presence of Meg and Sarah catches them by surprise. Those two quickly take up residence in the houseís ďpanic roomĒ, a heavily armored security installation that houses video monitors and should protect them from intruders.
The problem: what the crooks want sits inside the panic room. As such, they canít just steal at will and depart unscathed. In addition, since Meg just moved into the house, not all of the systems have been activated, so she canít take advantage of all the panic roomís features.
The movie simply follows the standoff between the two parties. The females try to find a way out of the panic room without becoming endangered by the crooks, and this leads to a number of problematic encounters. The film maintains a claustrophobic environment, as virtually all of the action takes place within the confines of the house; only brief segments at the very start and end of the flick show us life outside that space.
The tension these tight confines creates helps make Panic Room effective. Too many films allow us a relief from the tension as they depart from their many subjects. For example, We Were Soldiers badly breaks the mood at times. I like the fact that Fincher doesnít allow us any departures from the main location.
On the other hand, Fincher seems a little too preoccupied with flashy camera techniques at times. Coming from a background in music videos, Fincher always displays solid visual presentations, but he appears a little too taken with camerawork that flies all about the house. Do we really need to see a shot that zooms inside of a doorís lock? The mildly unconventional presentation really doesnít seem to serve the story to any particular degree, though it doesnít usually detract from the tale.
Panic Room shows a distinct Hitchcock influence, with a particular nod toward Rear Window at times. Actually, Room shows another homage that seems less likely: Home Alone. Essentially, the whole movie comes across like a more dramatic rendition of that flickís climactic segment. Heck, actress Kristen Stewart even looks like Macaulay Culkin! Room never approaches Aloneís absurd antics, of course, but the similarities remain.
One weakness of Room stems from the fairly generic characters. Weíve seen all these people before, and the crooks seem especially bland. A spoiled, cocky rich kid, a loose-cannon psycho who could go off at any moment, and the nice one whoís doing it just to create a better life for his family? Those roles donít seem too creative, and while all the actors appear perfectly competent, they donít breathe tremendous life into the personalities.
Really, the only thing that makes Room at all above average is Fincher. When viewed against his total catalog, I wouldnít rate Room as one of his better flicks. Se7en remains at the top of the list, and Fight Club definitely betters Room. Alien 3 seems more erratic but it shows more inspiration, so Iíd call it a draw between that film and Room. Only The Game definitely falls below Room on the Fincher scorecard.
As with Se7en, Fincher created a firm setting for the action, and that largely made Panic Room work. The movie didnít excel at much, but it formed a tense and involving world that allowed the movie to generally rise above its genre restrictions. Average Fincher remains better than the best from most other directors, so count Panic Room as a good but unexceptional thriller.