Panic Room

(2002) *** R
108 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: David Fincher. Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart.

Director David Fincher is a supreme technician, and he has a sensibility (a slum of suffering, with a back door of hope). But his ability to develop the right material remains in question. Panic Room is beneath him; it's a genre exercise that lays out the requisite roller-coaster track, takes audiences on a ride, and drops out the bottom once or twice. This potboiler yields broth, not stew, but let's face it: we're hungry enough for seconds.

Adding star power to the formula—and all the benefits and limitations thereof—is Jodie Foster, as a divorcee towing her early teenage daughter into an elegantly worn New York brownstone and the new life it represents. Fincher (and screenwriter David Koepp) quickly dispatch amusingly cynical real estate handlers Ann Magnuson and Ian Buchanan, leaving Foster and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) as prey to a gang of well-informed burglars with an unusual agenda. The vehicle to sustain this virtually real-time thriller is the titular, high-security closet, a thick-walled, wired safe room for wealthy paranoids. The thriller is all about who and what are on each side of the wall, and when.

The plot machinations are sometimes obvious (a health crisis complicates the panic room squatting and a climactic "surprise" is as offensively derivative as it is incredible), but the filmmakers engineer surprises almost as often as clichés. The motley crew of thugs are strictly of the comic-book variety, with Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam providing the requisite (and hardly scary) histrionics. Fincher wisely casts Forest Whitaker as their leader; Whitaker, always engrossing, credibly brings complex thought and moral weight to his recondite thief.

This Stephen King-esque premise benefits mightily from Fincher's effortless dread, taut pacing, and patented take-you-inside style (in a combination of expert photography and digital trickery, the camera travels through walls, floors, wires and the other hidden circuitry of our insulated lives). Fincher's clashes with cinematographer Darius Khondji led Conrad W. Hall to finish the picture, though the change isn't evident. In a more obvious production shift, an early knee injury sidelined Nicole Kidman, who preceded Foster in the leading role.

As usual, though, Foster owns the part, using force of will to create total audience identification. Her breathless insistence on survival and fiery vindictiveness seem to power Fincher's similar unyielding instincts to burrow, drive, thrust and swoop with his camera, until the job is done. That the comparsions to Hitchcock are inevitable says something about Fincher's command of technique and genre, but that Fincher fails to make Panic Room a more resonant allegory (or even a funnier ride) speak to his need to think twice when once would do.

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