Movie Review: Panic Room (2002)

“It was supposed to be the safest room in the house”

2 Stars
Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room (2002)


Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker

Synopsis: A woman and her daughter take refuge from three intruders in an impenetrable chamber hidden in the bedroom of their new apartment.

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Don’t be fooled by the mousy appearance of Meg Altman (Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs, Elysium) in the opening scenes of David Fincher’s home invasion thriller, Panic Room; the recent divorcee might appear to be the sort to jump at her own shadow, and certainly lacks the authority to keep her young teen daughter (Kristen Stewart – Snow White and the Huntsman, Equals) in check as they view an unusually spacious Manhattan apartment before moving in, but she presents us with an entirely different persona when three burglars break in on the first night in their new home.

The intruders are led by Junior (Jared Leto – Alexander, Suicide Squad), whose recently deceased Grandfather, a ridiculously wealthy financier, was the apartment’s previous occupant.   Grandad revealed only to Junior that he hid a fortune in bonds in a safe which is situated in a panic room – a concealed chamber constructed from thick steel hidden behind a wall in the master bedroom – and now that the old boy is dead, Junior isn’t too keen to share the booty with his relatives.   To help him with his plan to steal the bonds before they’re discovered, he’s recruited Raoul (Dwight Yoakam – Three Way), a surly type whose refusal to remove his balaclava seems a smart move considering all the CCTV installed in the property, and Burnham (Forest Whitaker – Out of the Furnace, Rogue One), the man who helped to design the panic room in which Meg and Sarah seek refuge upon hearing the sound of  unwelcome guests who are clearly unaware that the house has so recently been let.

You’d think that Meg and Sarah would only have to sit tight in the well-stocked room from which they can see the intruders’ every move on a bank of monitors until they give up and go away, but David Koepp’s canny screenplay dreams up all kinds of situations to keep the tension high and the outcome as uncertain as any good guys vs bad guys scenario can hope to be.   A race-against-time element is added to the mix by the fact that Sarah is a diabetic and her shots are out of reach in the fridge downstairs, while the fact that Burnham is intimately familiar with the design of the panic room means he can come up with various ingenious ways to try and gain entry.   And while he’s doing that, Meg is calling upon previously unsuspected reserves of resourcefulness to devise a handful of increasingly clever – and, to be honest, far-fetched – ways to grab the attention of the outside world.

Many consider Panic Room to be one of the weakest of David Fincher’s movies (although that complaint seems to be levelled at any of his movies that stray too close to conventional plotlines and characters).   The director’s trademarks are much in evidence, though – particularly the way he has his camera explore areas in which cameras simply aren’t supposed to travel.  It’s a piece of visual razzmatazz that dazzled us in Fight Club, but it’s a trick that isn’t a good fit with the tone and theme of the story.   Fincher does manage to generate a couple of moments of real tension, though, and he isn’t short-changed by an impressive cast.   Whitaker’s adept at showing us the cogs turning and the wheels spinning in order for his characters to transcend their sometimes stereotypical roots, while the under-appreciated Leto’s energy prevents the story from descending into the doldrums.

Panic Room’s only major flaw is it’s failure to provide adequate backstory for its three villains.   Koepp’s script does try to shoehorn some background detail, but it’s so clumsily done that you almost wish he hadn’t bothered.   The character of Raoul, who’s played with nicely understated menace by Yoakam, is particularly sketchy, so that an unexpected outburst of violence from him comes as just as much of a shock to the film’s characters as it does to the audience.   Overall though, Panic Room is a tense, tightly-plotted thriller which glosses over the holes in its plot sufficiently enough to keep up entertained.

(Reviewed 29th March 2017)





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