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January 01, 2009

Panic Room


A Tight Spot
Fincher's Latest Hits the Mark
By Cole Smithey

Misc_poster_panicroom_big Director David Fincher's "Panic Room" opens with a sumptuous credit sequence so captivating that you're drawn into the movie before a single word is spoken. Fincher, like Hitchcock and Polanski, understands implicitly the importance of every split second of film to register a particular condition in an audience's communal mind. Giant white marquee lettering suspends at odd angles over various live action Manhattan locations to the sound of a clock softly ticking. There's retro ambiance that drips with majestic Neo-Gothic portent and shrewdly references movies like "Rear Window" and "Wait Until Dark." The film that follows lives up to every bit of suspense and tension that those classic movies still induce today.

David Fincher ("Seven") is an audacious filmmaker interested in the pure physicality of emotion and movement to bare witness to hidden mysteries. No other living director goes as far in assessing the molecules of energy at the core of the stories he directs. Fincher's  previous film "Fight Club" polarized audiences. "Fight Club," like Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" or Mary Heron's "American Psycho," is a film you either adore or condemn for its deeply rooted violence and dark social commentary.

With "Panic Room," Fincher should have more luck converting audiences to his side because of the minimalism of the story and the extensive degree he goes to in expressing fear from inside the claustrophobic confines of a "safe" place. "Panic Room" (written by David Koepp -- "Stir of Echoes") is a terror/suspense movie that takes you to the edge of your seat and pins you there with a tug of war between immaculate photography and a tension filled plot. As a battle of wits escalates between a mother with her teenage daughter and a trio of home intruders, we savor a best and worst case scenario of an unpredictably precarious kind.

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a recently divorced wife of a wealthy pharmaceutical giant who moves, with her teenaged daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), into a spacious upper west side "townstone" previously owned by a paranoid millionaire. The home's master bedroom is equipped with a high-tech steel-reinforced panic room in the event of intrusion or outside attack. With its own seperate phone line, ventilation system, toilet, supplies, and bank of home surveillance monitors, the room also contains, unbeknownst to Meg or Sarah, a safe containing millions of dollars.

One of the men who constructed the safe room (Burnham--played by Forest Whitaker) has conspired with Junior (Jared Leto), a former caregiver of the previous owner, to break into the safe while the house is vacant. Junior has covered his bases and elicited the help of another more experienced thief named Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) to assist in the robbery--complete with ski-mask, rubber gloves, and a silenced automatic pistol. Once the thieves realize that they are not alone, Meg awakens barely in time to rescue Sarah, and the panic room becomes an urgent refuge that sits as the very target that the thieves will do anything to break into.

The movie percolates in jolts and sustained dread over a brilliantly ominous score by Howard Shore ("The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"). Filmed almost entirely inside the eerie dark of a house barely lit by moon glow, Shore's noninvasive music chides, confirms, and punctuates the drama that unfolds as the thieves bicker and attempt various ploys to lure Meg out or to invade the room.

Apart from one plot twist too many, "Panic Room" is a seamless suspense-thriller with a top-notch cast. Jodie Foster was past due for another foray into the suspense genre and brings a genuine maternal warmth to the role of a mother fighting with her every nerve and sinew to defend her family.
Rated R. 108 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)

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