by Rob Gonsalves
Technology is the star of 'Panic Room,' in front of the camera and behind it.The action centers on an impenetrable chamber in an expensive brownstone, a room designed to withstand the most sophisticated and persistent home invaders. There's one thing it can't hold off, though: David Fincher's camera. This director, who showed a flair for ominous, oppressive mood in Alien 3, Seven, and The Game, now treats the frame as his panting, frisky puppy. With the aid of computer animation, the camera rockets into keyholes, vents, even right through the handle of a coffee pot. I appreciate Fincher's desire to keep a claustrophobic movie visually interesting, but all it does is scream "This is a movie -- would you all please look at how much of a movie this is."
"Empty exercise from David Fincher."
Jodie Foster moves into the aforementioned brownstone with her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart, realistically deadpan and unimpressed by anything). They're shown the "panic room" before they move in; the idea of it gives Foster the creeps. (This leads to the movie's almost-lonely note of wit: Nursing buried-alive fears inside the panic room, Foster mutters "Ever read any Poe?" "No," says friend Ann Magnuson -- who really should be getting more work -- "but I loved her last album.") Naturally, Foster doesn't think to stock the panic room with supplies (say, food or insulin for her diabetic daughter) or hook up the room's independent phone line before moving in; naturally, a trio of thieves pick the duo's first night in the house to break into it, in search of a safe containing rumored millions; naturally, said safe is inside the panic room.
Give screenwriter David Koepp some credit: He manages to keep this impasse plot -- Foster and daughter, having taken refuge in the panic room, can't get out; the thieves can't get in -- going for a while solely on tension. At certain points it's as if Sam Neill and the two children from Jurassic Park (which Koepp adapted) hid up in that tree from raptors for two hours, except that these human raptors are considerably less toothsome. The ringleader is big, cuddly Forest Whitaker, who really shouldn't be asked to play an imposing villain straight (that he was cast -- brilliantly -- as the lethal, virtuosic samurai in Ghost Dog was part of that movie's joke); to be fair, though, he's the one with a conscience, the thief who just wants to get the money without excess bloodshed. His partners, the jittery Junior (Jared Leto, amusing when he's being bashed around) and the stone psycho Raoul (Dwight Yoakam, working his razorblade monotone to good effect), are less concerned with the welfare of their captives -- and, fortunately, much less smart than any person onscreen, and only slightly less smart than many pieces of furniture onscreen.
You can judge, with a sigh, why Foster was attracted to this material (other than a residual urge to work with David Fincher, in whose The Game she was slated to play the Sean Penn role before dropping out due to pregnancy). She gets to play fierce protector -- Clarice Starling as a mama, saving those lambs (or at least one) all over again. She doesn't do a great deal we haven't seen from her before, and it comes as absolutely no shock that she's self-sufficient and resourceful enough to hold the villains at bay while keeping her daughter safe. The movie is a mere exercise for Foster, her proof that she can do pared-down mainstream stuff as well as anyone. We knew that. She can do pretty much anything as well as anyone. What I'd like to see from her, every decade or so, is a character with some flaws -- maybe even, gasp, a villain. A woman as smart and formidable as Foster projects herself to be could play a female monster to reckon with, but where's the screenwriter ready to write such a role?
And where's David Fincher's head these days? Whooshing through keyholes and coffee pots, I guess. Fincher, it's clear by now, is a slickster in the Ridley Scott mold; few directors lay on the shadows and bass reverb as skillfully as he, but after five films, what does he have to say? From the evidence, possibly that any person with the ill luck to be trapped in a David Fincher design had better prepare to bloody himself or herself on the long way out of it.'Panic Room' can be taken as a deeply sick and depressing joke on Fincher's own predicament -- his style is his panic room, and whether he ever breaks out depends on how richly he's rewarded for staying inside it.
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originally posted: 01/14/07 20:00:42