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Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Break on through to the other side

Panic Room

Rating: * * * *
Director: David Fincher
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

David Fincher is the kind of director who'll never just show you someone opening a door. Oh, no -- not when he can swoop down to doorknob level and blast you through the keyhole instead. His filmmaking is intensely physical, mobile and designed for maximum impact. As critics love to say, it's visceral.

News photo
Kristen Stewart and Jodie Foster in "Panic Room"

This approach was perfectly suited to the material in his last film, "Fight Club," which was one of the most disturbingly aggressive films since "A Clockwork Orange." His latest, "Panic Room," is a far more conventional sort of film, an urban-paranoia flick that updates the seemingly helpless-woman-trapped-at-home premise of the Audrey Hepburn classic "Wait Until Dark." It's a testament to Fincher's skills, though, that he can take a genre flick like this -- complete with deja vu screenplay by David "Spider-Man" Koepp -- and still manage to bust some moves, making a by-the-numbers thriller feel like an adrenochrome rush.

Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, a wealthy divorcee who's looking for a new Manhattan residence. She and her sullen daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) decide on a spacious four-story town house on the Upper West Side, complete with an elevator and more rooms than they could possibly use, including one in particular, the "panic room."

Similar to the castle keeps of old, the panic room is a hiding place of last resort. Meg's high-tech bolt-hole features steel-reinforced walls, an unbreachable door and a network of hidden cameras that can monitor every nook and cranny of the house. Meg, a semiclaustrophobe, doesn't like it ("Ever read any Poe?" she asks the real-estate agent), but it will come in handy sooner than she thinks. Meg and Sarah are fast asleep on their first night in this new home when along come three burglars -- one pro (Forest Whitaker), one amateur (Jared Leto) and one psycho (Dwight Yoakam) -- looking for some loot hidden by the home's previous owner.

The scene where the trio break in is typical of Fincher's strengths: The camera pulls back from the clock (12:26 a.m.) beside which Meg lies sprawled on her bed and then drops down the center of the stairwell to the window grills on the first floor. Still tracking in one shot, it prowls over unpacked boxes and kitchen counters to the locked backdoor, and then soars all the way up to the skylight, at roof level.

Technically, it's an amazing bit of work, and it makes you wonder why Fincher's usual cinematographer, Darius Khondji ("Seven"), quit halfway through the film. An atmospherics expert, Khondji said he felt there wasn't much he could do in such a confined space, but Khondji's replacement, "American Beauty's" Conrad Hall, seems to have had some fun. Beyond the sheer thrill of virtuoso technique, though, the sequence pulls us into the vulnerability of the space, the speed with which even the most secure home can be probed and violated.

For anyone who's ever lived in a major U.S. city, it's like watching a familiar nightmare unfold as these three urban demons -- hulking homeboy, tweaked-out freak and piece-packing white trash -- silently ascend the staircase while Meg unknowingly goes to the bathroom. A lucky glimpse of the intruders allows the women to beat them by a breath to the panic room, but when the room's phone fails to work, the hiding place begins to feel more like a trap.

Fincher handles the set pieces with flair. When the thieves try to pump gas into the panic room, or when Meg and Sarah try to signal to their neighbors with a flashlight, the camera gives us some extraordinary points of view, winding through air vents and holes in the wall. "Panic Room" is a film about space and enclosure, and Fincher makes sure that we understand the significance of every element. (Despite such attention to detail, it's amazing that he ended up with a glaring plot hole involving the door's safety mechanism.)

The sound design is just as clever: The film's most fraught scene, when Meg bolts out of the panic room to retrieve her cellphone while the thieves are arguing, is played in slow-mo silence. With only suspended drones on the soundtrack, these crucial few seconds are extended into a breathless eternity. By cutting the sound, the viewer is forced to wonder, excruciatingly, just how much noise Meg's footsteps are making, and whether the thugs can hear them.

This being a David Koepp script, the characters aren't half as interesting as the camera-work: The burglars are pure caricature, and even Jodie's character is rather thin, except for a raging maternal ferocity when her daughter is threatened. Foster, who replaced an injured Nicole Kidman for this role, doesn't disappoint though. With little to work with, she still manages to portray Meg as a woman adrift, slightly defeated by life, until danger forces her to act. No one can lock her jaw like Foster, and her ability to project strength on top of vulnerability serves her well here.

After the mad rush of "Fight Club," which has already garnered cult status, Fincher's latest may seem a step back. It's worth remembering, though, that even directors like Hitchcock and Scorsese had films for which the script wasn't equal to their potential, but even then the results were worth a look. (Think "Frenzy" or "Cape Fear.") "Panic Room" may not be a Great Film, but it is a pretty good one that allows Fincher to keep his directorial muscles in shape until a more challenging project comes along. Actually, his next film is due in June, with a title that's sure to attract some attention: "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys."

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