Tuesday 1 September 2015

Movie Review: Panic Room (2002)

A women-under-siege suspense thriller, Panic Room is a competently delivered film with a committed Jodie Foster performance and fluid directing from David Fincher. Despite all the polish, many predictable elements of the home invasion sub-genre do creep in.

Recent divorcĂ©e Meg Altman (Foster) and her mouthy 11 year old daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) purchase a swish four-story townhouse in tony Upper Manhattan, previously owned by an ailing millionaire with secrets. The home features a reinforced panic room designed to protect occupants against home invaders. On their first night at the home, Meg and Sarah are awakened by three intruders: Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam).

Meg and Sarah make it into the panic room and lock themselves in. But Junior and his crew are after money hidden in a safe within the panic room. With Meg unable to call for outside help and the invaders struggling to break into the panic room, a tense standoff ensues. As the night progresses, Meg learns that Junior has a connection to the previous owner of the house, while Burnham's occupation places him at an advantage in trying to gain access to the panic room. Raoul, meanwhile, is a violent wildcard, and Sarah suffers from a condition that will make it even more difficult for her to survive the ordeal.

With the well-worn premise easily describable in three words, it's up to Fincher to create an entertaining drama and stretch proceedings while maintaining interest over almost two hours. He digs deep into his bag of tricks and finds enough pizazz to give Panic Room a decent shine. With the townhouse itself stepping in as the alternative star of the film, Fincher adopts a philosophy of fluid camera movement and long takes, often simulating the point-of-view passing through walls and ceilings. The break-in scene is a masterpiece of assumed continuity, the cameras tracking the invaders' movements outside the house, testing multiple entry points at various levels before finally achieving access.

In terms of content, the film settles down to the two women in the room gathering their courage and trying to plot an escape or a rescue, and the three men outside the room trying to breach the panic room's defences. That there is bickering on both sides of the wall is a given. Meg and Sarah are dealing with the debris of Meg's divorce and are often barely civil with each other. Junior is obsessed, Burnham is circumspect and Raoul is simmering with the threat of violence. The men are the furthest thing from a well-oiled criminal trio, and the fissures between them are established early. The squabbling throughout the house allows the David Koepp script to delve into the characters during the frequent lulls in action, and the film finds a modest balance between suspense scenes and background context.

The final act reverses occupancies and powers into more mindless action territory, as the guns and sledgehammers swing into action, an additional character is brought into the house, there are typical Ramboesque heroics, he's-still-not-dead! surprises and bodies that start to pile up. In short, the more calculable, less cerebral elements are brought to the fore. And as is usual for this fare, the bad guys find ways to become especially incompetent when it matters most.

Jodie Foster delivers a grim performance filled with reluctant courage, giving Meg the inner fortitude to fight on all fronts. A young Kristen Stewart matches Foster, and does her part to create inner family tension while also hinting at the maturing young woman within the girl trapped in the panic room. The three invaders are brought to life with a good mixture of hesitancy and menace by the quite watchable Leto, Whitaker and Yoakam.

Panic Room may not find too many new corners to explore, but the film at least looks good treading over the reasonably familiar real estate.

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