Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/27/05 15:14:09

"The (Little) Lady Vanishes."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Sometimes movie critics have to make wagers with themselves, and I’ve already lost my latest. I bet myself I could go an entire review of “Flightplan” without invoking the name of Alfred Hitchcock, and yet there’s simply no other way of opening a film that’s so Hitchcockian, right down to its bone. Bring in Jodie Foster in the leading role, and I’ve doubly lost my bet - I find myself compelled to mention how her last major feature was “Panic Room,” David Fincher’s own ode to the master of suspense.

There are two ways a Hitchcock reference can go: it can play out as “boy, this movie really wants to be a Hitchcock-level thriller, but it’s just not up to snuff,” or it can play out as “boy, this movie really wants to be a Hitchcock-level thriller, and you know what?” “Flightplan,” from director Robert Schwentke and screenwriters Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray, is of the latter. Which brings me to: You know what? It works.

The film’s premise is deceptively simple. Troubled mom (Foster) and daughter (Kate Beahan) plan to leave Germany and return to New York following the death of dad. On the flight, mom takes a nap, wakes up to find daughter missing, panics. The ultimate hook: she’s told her daughter was never on the plane.

It’s part “The Lady Vanishes,” part “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” and part “The Forgotten” - all without seeming like it’s “part” anything. Only in the final act does it resort to familiar territory, relying on standard thriller plot points to provide a workable solution. (The finale is ill-fitting and clichéd, but surprisingly satisfying.) All that comes before works with a nervous energy and unsettling mood that informs the viewer that things are not right. It’s a sensation that works to the story’s advantage marvelously.

The key to the film is Foster, who reminds us why she’s so missed these days on the screen. Here is an actor who takes what could have been a standard, unimpressive thriller and turns it into a psychological marvel. By believing in the material, she delivers an endlessly impressive, endlessly gripping performance, one that sells the terror without hesitation.

This is a movie about fear, about phobia, and Foster’s nailbiter of a performance helps drive this point home. Dowling and Ray’s script is one that plays off every fear-of-flying terror we have, which are then heightened by the addition of that ultimate fear, the fear of losing one’s child. This is not a movie bound to make any parent comfortable, by any means, and the filmmakers know it. They’re out to push buttons, and the snowballing panic that ensues forced each scene to be more powerful than the last.

Well, that is until that aforementioned final act, in which the screenplay shrugs, realizing that after so long, it has to come up with some kind of workable answer. It’s the curse of any deliciously unsolvable mystery: the fun is in the not knowing, but sooner or later, knowing will have to become an option. And so we get your typical thriller-on-a-plane stuff; it works on its own terms, to be sure, and it’s quite fun in a dopey sense, but considering how smart the rest of the film had been, it comes off as a bit of a letdown.

But it’s not nearly enough to sink the film. “Flightplan” is effortlessly effective, using a strong cast (supporting players include Sean Bean and Peter Sarsgaard) and a complete understanding of how to turn such a simple setting into an inescapably claustrophobic affair. Schwentke keeps the sense of dread cranked throughout, and while his ode to Hitchcock isn’t as airtight as “Panic Room,” it still does its job remarkably well, supplying a solid dose of thrills and a gripping sense of unease that makes for one noteworthy thriller.

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