Panic Room







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Cleolinda: ***

Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam; dir. David Fincher

Rated R for violence and language

Previews (varies by theater): Spider-Man (latest), Signs (latest), Van Wilder, Episode II (dammit, the schmoopy one! Where's the new one they showed on Fox?! Do you
know how many movies I have seen with "Forbidden Love" running before it??), Enough

Ah, yes--over the Sinus Infection of Hades (well, mostly) and out of bed. However, I am a little disappointed that this was my first trip back to the theater. Don't get me wrong--I'm a huge Jodie Foster fan, and I've loved all of David Fincher's films (okay, Alien 3 not so much)... but.... how do I explain this? Yes, this is technically "a David Fincher film." He directed it, was physically on the set, received monetary compensation for doing so. However, this is not A David Fincher Film. Quite frankly, the story has more in common with those Ashley Judd empowered-chick-in-peril flicks than Fight Club or Seven. And I feel bad suggesting that a man with that kind of talent can't just, you know, take a creative break once in a while. Flex his muscles on a by-the-book thriller. Because Panic Room is a good, solid movie. It's just not A David Fincher Movie--not does it have A David Fincher Ending, you may be relieved to know. I'm just sayin', I want you to know what you're getting into (or not, as the case may be) before you go see this film.

Because, on the flip side, you will not see a better screw-turner than this one. It's like a four-star chef flipping burgers at your backyard barbecue: everyone here is vastly overqualified for the job.  Fincher pulls some sterling visual razzle-dazzle out of his hat--interminable swooping tracking shots, key's-eye view of a keyhole, cross-sections of the set that let you see what's going on in two rooms at once, etc.--but the problem is basically the story. As Roger Ebert notes, the mother and daughter vs. intruders plot is played as brilliantly as a chess game here, but--I would add--it's still a chess game, you know? And I'm used to Fincher sweeping the board off the table. This is a film that just does what a lot of films have done, only better.

That said, Panic Room has a lot going for it. The casting, for example, is excellent. In fact, I was reading a Jodie Foster interview wherein she noted that the script had to be tweaked for her, once she took over for an
ailing Nicole Kidman: "There's a lot of things I can play," she said, "but helpless trophy wife isn't one of them." Ahhhhh. The Kidman casting makes a lot more sense when you realize the Meg Altman role was originally supposed to be a woman who "hadn't even written a check before"; Kidman's extremely intelligent, but she has the kind of beauty could convey "trophy wife." There's a moment near the beginning of the film when the man showing the house asks Foster, "What do you do [for a living]?," and she replies from beneath her square, chunky black glasses, "Oh, I'm going back to school." See how the implications of that line shift with the casting? The trophy wife you'd expect to be making up for lost time; Foster's Meg, you might suspect, just wants to get a second or third degree to keep her mind off the divorce.

(Let it be noted, however, that Fincher finds a way to get
Kidman in the movie after all, and it's a corker.)

Daughter Sarah, too, is impeccably cast--everyone I know swore up and down that she was a boy from seeing the previews, and this is going to sound like a horribly back-handed compliment to both the actresses, but Kristen Stewart, in this role, looks like the kind of daughter Jodie Foster would have. At times, in fact, Sarah seems a little more on the ball than Meg--Sarah's the one who starts Morse-coding a flashlight for help through an open vent, for example, and ransacking the panic room storage boxes hours before her mother thinks to--but Meg has a desperate ingenuity of her own, which culminates in a last-ditch attempt to turn the house into a rat trap. And there's a scene where she has to convince the police that nothing is wrong that has to be seen to be believed.

Which is another thing I liked about the movie: the filmmakers involved know that in most movies like this, the police you want so desperately to come don't arrive until it does more harm than good, and, while you'll have to shoo them away, they go pretty easily. Maybe with a sidelong glance, a shake of the head, but they go. The cops in Panic Room don't go easily--which of course ratchets up the tension--but this movie is the rare one that assumes police officers are intelligent enough to actually do the job.

The weakest part of the film, actually, is probably the intruders. Forest Whitaker, however, is exempted from this; he seems to have a lock on the Sympathetic Character Playing for the Wrong Side, and I found myself wishing he was in more movies--as that character or not, just in something. Jared Leto, well--what's with the cornrows, anyway? I'm not sure if finding out what his real interest in the panic room was made the cornrows make more sense (family black sheep?) or less (actorly whim?). His character got on my nerves quite a lot, and I still can't decide if it was Leto showboating the whole time, or just his character, Junior, because that, too, would make sense. And Dwight Yoakam--who was also good in Sling Blade, as you may remember--is great as the hateful Raoul. (Although, honestly--when he first appeared in that freakish black ski mask, was I the only person thinking, "Bring out the
gimp"?) The real problem with the characters is not the individual performances--it's that they're written so predictably. You've got the Criminal with a Heart of Gold, the Inept Brat Who's In Over His Head, and the Quiet Psychopath. No bonus points for guessing that they eventually turn against each other.

Bottom line: No bonus points, really, for guessing anything that happens in the movie, which I guess is my problem. But if you want a thriller, I'm telling you--you're not going to find a better photographed, better cast one out there.


Discuss waking up paranoid tonight
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For those of you keeping score: What other movie featured both Foster and recent Oscar winner/ composer Howard Shore?