Half Suspense, Half Comedy, Half EnjoyableBy Brian Loux
Written by David Koepp
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam
One aspect of working with a simple story is that authors and directors have an almost divine mandate to make it deeper. For example, Shakespeare took Hamlet, a common and trite story about revenge, and reflected on the meaning of life. Director David Fincher (Fight Club) does something similar with Panic Room.
The story is just about told in the trailer: Meg Altman (Jodie Foster, Contact) and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) purchase a luxury apartment with an impregnable room installed by the previous owner, who was more rich and paranoid than most in the neighborhood. Just as they move in, a trio of angry thugs breaks into the house searching for the former owner’s riches, and the pair barricade themselves in the room. Unfortunately, the thieves are headed straight for that room. Now the battle begins between the Altmans with their steel wall and (alas!) uninstalled security system and the driven thieves.
The problem is that for the first half of the movie, Fincher decides to develop a comedy, which doesn’t really fit well with the story’s tension. The botched heist and dead security system bring about such surges of stupidity that I was worried one of the characters was going to ask, “Dude, where’s my car?” Equally inexplicable are the impressive moments of mental clarity from some characters to get them out of jams and stop the movie from becoming too ludicrous. Both protagonists and antagonists flip flop from a combination of the Keystone Kops and the Three Stooges to a combination of Solid Snake and McGuyver when the plot deems it necessary. I still cannot comprehend how in one scene Foster grasps at her cell phone underneath the bed like she has a flipper for an arm and then an hour later moves silently about the house laying traps and carrying a sledgehammer in ninja fashion. While much of the foolishness and ingenuity is meant to give insight into some characters’ psyches, the scenes often play out as hilariously overboard.
Aside from their blunders, we learn little about these characters in the first half of the script. This unfortunately establishes them as one-dimensional, and the actors must fight to show you they are not. It feels like we’ve seen the criminals before: inept leader and crybaby Junior (Jared Leto), maniac Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) and blue-collar-turned-thief-with-a-heart-of-gold Burnham (Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog). Even when we later learn that Sarah and Meg have more problems than just being trapped in their own house, it is hard to empathize with them when all we know is that they are Upper West Side elite.
The movie finally picks up at the halfway point with an unexpected plot twist. From then on, suspense lives up to expectations, plot kinks are intriguing rather than comical, and character enrichment lessens their one-dimensionality. Whitaker really begins to shine and almost becomes the male lead (if there really is one) as he begins to question his motives for taking the assignment and whether the promise of a better life justifies what has happened to the Altman family.
Though the last part of the thief saga is spectacular, the ending leaves much to be desired. Since the supposedly impervious panic room proves to be susceptible to attack, a director like Hitchcock could have easily left you with the feeling that nowhere is perfectly safe from evil. Fincher decides to just end the story in no particular fashion, only notifying the audience that it’s time to go home. While thrilling and fun for a while, Panic Room falls short of its ultimate potential and is overall, forgettable.