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No reason to panic

The latest movie from the director of Seven and Fight Club trudges along, diluting the fear and losing logic along the way.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002

[Photo: Columbia Pictures]
Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, who finds herself cornered in Panic Room.
Panic Room contains the elements of a creepy movie, but it merely creeps, reducing tension to tedium with repetitive stalker-flick cliches.

Director David Fincher, so ingeniously macabre in Seven and Fight Club, never makes this material sizzle because, unlike those films, there aren't any surprises in Panic Room beyond its preview trailer. We know a woman who looks a lot like Clarice Starling will become a prisoner alongside her daughter in their own home, menaced by invaders while hiding in a secret, ultrasecure shelter.

If that safe place included a window, logic would be flying out of it. Keeping everyone on the same side of that steel door gets stale, and the implausible means used to switch places and pad the movie are either listless, laughable or needlessly sadistic. Before long, the theater is its own panic room, and a viewer wonders if we'll ever get out.

Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, so depressed about her failed marriage that she buys a four-story Manhattan townhome to cheer up. One room was designed by the previous owner with banks of surveillance equipment and supplies in case of a home invasion. Meg's a little claustrophobic about it, but her punkish daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), thinks this cozy dungeon is cool.

This supposedly safe haven comes in handy on their very first night in the new digs. A trio of burglars is looking for a vague fortune that happens to be stashed inside the panic room. They're not leaving until Meg and Sarah come out. But a movie solely about people yelling at each other through a reinforced door would be even duller. Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp devise a series of implausible situations to ensure that door will slide open a few times, with little suspense on the other side.

Foster makes Meg a character along the lines of Dustin Hoffman's meek avenger in Straw Dogs, a bookish sort who turns vicious in a violated domain. She's good in the role, but the role doesn't offer much to do except fret and duck. Stewart's petulant teen-isms are common stock, and Sarah's medical contribution to Fincher's easy coincidences is one of several instances when one senses this movie going wrong.

Another is the introduction of villains straight out of central casting: the bearish guy with a conscience (Forest Whitaker), a loud-mouthed loose cannon (Jared Leto, wearing cornrows for extra psycho effect), and the guy who just wants to kill somebody, played by Dwight Yoakum for much of the film in a ski mask. These aren't reservoir dogs; they're puddle puppies yapping at each other.

Panic Room does benefit from the intrusive cameras of co-cinematographers Darius Khondji and veteran Conrad Hall, who came aboard when Foster's recent pregnancy delayed production too long for Khondji's schedule. Whichever artist is responsible for a gorgeous one-take prowl of the premises while the burglars break in deserves applause. The camera floats everywhere, even into a dead-bolt keyhole, in a masterfully prepared piece of work. Those arthroscopic detours into shadowy regions always suggest dread when the script fails.

Panic Room

  • Grade: C
  • Director: David Fincher
  • Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakum, Kristen Stewart
  • Screenplay: David Koepp
  • Rating: R; violence, profanity
  • Running time: 112 min.

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