Directed by David Fincher. USA. 2002.
Review by Jen Johnston
I am an unbelievable fan of David Fincher. His is a directing talent capable of coaxing incredible performances and creating an unequalled texture in any shot. I am also a great fan of Jodie Foster. Here is a multi-talented lady, brave in her selections of films to helm, and smart in her acting choices. As both these power players are major parts of Panic Room, it comes as a major disappointment that it just doesnít work.
Panic Room is the story of Meg and Sarah Altman. Recently single, Meg finds the perfect new home, a beautifully constructed brownstone in New York. As with most real estate transactions the problems within are hidden from the purchasers, namely that the recently deceased billionaire who had occupied the home was extemeley paranoid, and so made the business decision to bury some of his zillions inside the house, and the surviving relatives are hungry to get their hands on it. On the Altmanís first night in their new home, thieves break in to get their hands on the fortune that is concealed in the one place Meg and Sarah go to hide.
Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate, Taxi Driver) stars as the newly single mother Meg, putting in a nearly exceptional performance. As a parent, it was very easy to put myself in her shoes. I empathized with the fear, with the rage she would have felt at her child being threatened. The problem that overwhelms an otherwise excellent performance are the brain farts that conflict with the profile of an otherwise intelligent woman. To me, it makes no sense that a person can be intelligent enough to cause chemical reactions with a MacGyver quantity of materials, and in the same breath be completely surprised that criminals threatening her child and herself may not be always up front with her. Smart enough to figure out a way to hook up the phone line to the panic room once trapped inside it. Not smart enough to have done so before she moved in. Foster has a brilliant scene of rage that erupts from fear to an animal fury when her daughter is closed in with the intruders. Itís a typical flash of director Fincherís talent (and a bit of a tribute to Sam Peckinpahís ďStraw DogsĒ) that when pushed too far Meg and those who are attempting to dominate her switch places, with her becoming the aggressor. This nice device aside, Megís blundering moments are far too numerous to make her merely a human being under stress, and more a person with the flukiest moments of strength.
Jared Leto (Fight Club) plays the frenetic leader of the pack of would be thieves; Junior. Leto does create an interesting character, full of life. The annoyance being that he doesnít blend at all with Fincherís dark atmosphere. Junior is, (strangely enough) the most likeable personality in Panic Room but as he is playing the role of the leader of three men attempting to rob from, and murder an innocent woman and child Leto seems miscast, and the audience feels guilty for enjoying his performance.
Forest Whitaker (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Species) plays Burnham, the brains of the operation. Since Burnham constructs panic rooms, Junior brings him along to break into the ultimate in home security devices. Problems arise when Burnham refuses to take part in any activity that might harm Meg and Sarah. Whitaker plays Burnham as a gentle soul who only delves into extreme actions when bullied. Whitaker and Fincher handle this character perfectly , keeping in their own vision, instead of what I suspect focus groups were screaming for in terms of the a happy ending. Very nicely done.
Leaping from nicely done to the other end of the spectrum, enter Dwight Yoakam (The Minus Man, The Newton Boys) in the most vicious role in this film, that of the mysterious Raoul. The problems here are many, everything from not being able to leap over the hurdle of someone named Dwight, playing someone named Raoul, to how incredibly, indescribably, AWFUL his performance was. Yoakam, (though it is not exactly my genre of choice) is a skilled musician, and should NOT be expanding into the field of film. In his every onscreen moment, from his interactions with Meg and Sarah, to bullying Burnham he is utterly and hopelessly outclassed, making him look like heís just not trying, and everyone else tone down their abilities to try to make the film seem more balanced.
I have been a fan of David Fincherís pacing and visual style since Se7en and will be one all through his career, for he is innovative enough to form his own visual style and not compromise it to big budget outlines. The fault here doesnít fall on Fincherís shoulders for Panic Roomís lack of intensity. That blame gets placed squarely on the shoulders of screenwriter David Koepp for his ambiguous character development, and Yoakamís lacklustre turn. Panic Room is worth a watch for Foster, Kristen Stewart (The Safety of Objects) turn as Sarah Altman, and to consume New York city as only Fincher can show it to you. However, there will be nothing lost by saving your money, and waiting until itís available on the small screen to take it home.
Review by Mark Fougere
Iím sure that director David Fincher had the very best of intentions for Panic Room. The opening credits were amazing, showing the Manhattan skyline, natives, and tempo of traffic as I had never seen before. As the opening credits were the highlight of the film for me, that statement about the road to hell being paved with what Fincher waltzed into this movie with is making more and more sense.
Meg Altman, (Jodie Foster; The Accused, Silence of the Lambs) a middle aged divorcee is looking to start over with her eleven year old daughter Sarah. (Kristen Stewart; The Safety of Objects) In the middle of a messy battle, Meg finds her sanctuary on the west side of Manhattan; a mansion that could be hiding anything. (Judging from the security system that it comes with, all the gold in Fort Knox could be a possible guess.) As the previous owner was rich and paranoid his safety system is state of the art, a panic room. (For those that havenít yet seen the ads, a panic room is a must in any city where you get put on hold when you dial 911. It is essentially a large walk in closet that is built like a vault. Once inside the occupants have all the power over whether or not the steel door will open.)
Once Fosterís character Meg gets trapped inside the panic room with her daughter, her performance dwindles into one of those classic ďIím in a suspense film so Iím naturally dumb as a postĒ roles. Itís the kind of movie that offers the opportunity to yell at the screen and curse while doing it. For example, there is a moment in Panic Room when the audience realizes that though there is no phone directly inside the room itself, Meg did leave a cell phone plugged in. In her bedroom. Located directly outside the panic room. Of course the audience realizes this about 45 minutes before Meg does. Not a great moment for women in film.
It is discovered about 10 minutes in to this movie that the rich and paranoid man happened to leave something protected in the Altmanís new home, so one of his surviving relatives, nephew Junior (played by Jared Leto; Requiem for a Dream, American Psycho) enlists the help of Burnham (played by Forest Whitaker; Ghost Dog) who installs these very rooms for a living. Of course to have the typical gang of thieves you need three, and who automatically would leap to mind? Definitely not Dwight Yoakam, the country singer we all know and love (or something like that). Yoakam plays the trigger happy Raoul, the muscle for a job that shouldnít need muscle in the first place.
WARNING: TO ALL COUNTRY MUSIC DISLIKERS OUT THERE. DO NOT BECOME OVERLY ENTHUSIASTIC WHEN YOAKAM LOSES HIS FINGERS. IT IS MERELY A SPECIAL EFFECT. DAMN YOU HOLLYWOOD.
Jodie Foster's portrayal of a mother who is first overwhelmed, and then enraged when it came to saving her diabetic daughtersí life is just a little too fast. While there is a bright spot in young Stewart, she is a creepily logical and calm eleven year old. The bit with the propane....propane is heavier than air and would have therefore sunk to the bottom of the room instead of floating to the top like natural gas, and when Foster did a little test with the barbeque lighter while merely standing in the room, she would have cremated herself and her daughter. AND any diabetic knows that the last thing you want to give a person going into a low blood sugar coma is insulin. They need orange juice or SOME form of glucose. The insulin would have killed her.
Jenniís note: Mark is ranting here. This review was written two days after seeing the film. Imagine what he was like the evening he watched it.
Now thatís off my chest allow me to advise that this movie does give the audience some cheap thrills along with a few humorous moments, but lacks realism, and doesnít give the audience a chance to connect with any of itís characters. The trailer misleads you for the credits are the only thing worth paying money to see.
Review by Shaun McDonald
Director David Fincher returns to the psychological thriller genre again, with varying success... yet he is not content to just play out the typical conventions of the genre. The storyline is simple, Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), have just moved into a massive new house, which for some reason was very cheap. Inside the house is a panic room, which in case of a burglary, you can hide in their inside a solid steel room. The room has its own electricity supply, ventilation, etc. Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), and Junior (Jared Leto), are all there to steal millions of Dollars, which are hidden in the panic room. When they break into the house Meg and Sarah hide in the panic room. They want to get out of there, and the burglars want to get in, cue the problem.
Though nothing new, fears over domestic safety are at a high point recently due to the current political instability, and thus give the perfect direction for a psychological thriller to go. And screenwriter David Koepp brings some clever twists to the usual conventions. With a couple of inter-textual references thrown in as well, most notably early on, when Sarah uses a flashlight to signal a sleeping neighbour with Morse code. "Where did you learn that?" asks Mom. "Titanic," deadpans the daughter. You have to give credit to a movie that laughs at the suspense clichés it's lifting.
There's the attempt to attract the attention of neighbours, the strategies of the crooks to lure the pair out of the panic room, the arrival of Meg's ex-husband, the need to keep inquisitive cops at bay. Sarah's diabetes adds a further element of danger and urgency, as well as an additional weapon in the form of a syringe. Though at times the continuos problemĖsolution of the film can get a little repetitive, and despite the ingenuity of the original idea, there are limits to what can be done in a film set for the most part in one room. And the anticlimaxes can become a little too predictable at times, which can give the impression that a bit more time could have been spent perfecting the script. And surprisingly for a film of this genre, there is very little violence in the film, which is also surprising for Fincher, whose films Seven, and Fight Club, work on the premise: the more violence the better.
For me one of the most appealing aspects of the film, is the beautifully orchestrated cinematography, from the hands of Conrad Hall, and Darius Khondji. Hall, whose worked as a cameraman on Seven and Fight Club, combines with Khondjiís seeming more artistic and flowing camera movement (whose credits include the enchantingly beautiful City of Lost Children) combine for a startling effect.
Despite these problems
Foster is as good as ever, working the tension the way she knows best.
Though the same canít be said about the rest of the cast as they are all
(intentionally?) overplayed, leaving little ambiguity towards the motives
of their characters. Forest Whitaker (Burnham) playing the moral thief,
Dwight Yoakam (Raoul) playing the dumb guy who wants to kill everyone.
In one scene Raoul comically thinks that he can smash though solid steel
with a sledgehammer. Though it is scenes like this which position the film
awkwardly between suspense and parody.
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