Panic Room, The (2002) **2/3
Directed by David Fincher. Written by David Koepp. Photography, Conrad W. Hall & Darius Khondji. Editing, James Haygood & Angus Wall. Production design, Arthur Max. Music, Howard Shore. Production design, Arthur Max. Producers,Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, Mr. Koepp, Cean Chaffin. Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart, Ann Magnuson, Ian Buchanan, et al. A Columbia release. 108 minutes. R. (violence)
"Nobody knows the troubles I've i seen - nobody knows but Sony." In this Sony-produced flick, product placement comes naturally. Banks of surveillance monitors, more numerous than the movie's humans, could rival a TV newsroom --along with other to-die-for high tech .
The setting (for 96% of the movie) is a huge Manhattan townhouse. An inexplicably snooty, antagonistic real estate agent with a pronounced Brit accent is showing it to recent divorcee Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) who, in early sequences could be mistaken for a boy.
The house is almost bare but rich in state-of-the-art electronics. And it has a Panic Room that brings to mind the home bomb shelters built by some private parties in the days of the Cold War and the Red Scare. Apparently, PRs do exist in the mansions of zillionaires. Supposedly they consist of a space totally sealed off from the rest of the building. They sound like kissin' cousins to bank vaults, complete with communications centers : monitors, alarms, phones, etc. Everything is automatic. Who could ask for anything more? Hitler's bunker was child's play by comparison.
On the very first night mother and child spend in their new home, by a sheer, amazing and outrageous coincidence (the script ought to have avoided it) a trio of Hollywoodianly mismatched malefactors (another overdone script weakness) who think that the manor is still uninhabited, carve their way inside it. Burnham (Forest Whitaker) is a longtime employee of the firm that built the PR. He is a thief but who can blame him severely in these times of corporation banditry and terrible inequities between the have-little and the many with outrageous riches? As the film unfolds, we realize that while Burnham is, in principle, a bad guy, he is no monster. This, the movie accomplishes soberly and without mawkishness.
His co-conspirator Junior (Jared Leto) is the guy who--for reasons pretty obscure to me--knows (how? This escaped me) that there is a huge, dormant stash (money? bonds?) in the building. Junior is a dimbulb who alternates between Napoleonic poses and idiocy. Neither burglar is armed. But then Junior springs on Burnham a third party, Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) who is a scary psychopath, wears a ski-mask (why?) and is seriously armed.
You can see the plot coming from as far as Atlantic City. The invaders invade, the new lady of the house drags her daughter to the PR. They are besieged. But this Invasion of the Treasure Snatchers is so dumb that no one is posted outside the Panic Room. This allows Meg to make some forays outside it. Don't ask.
Matters are made worse, in Hollywood fashion, by the PR's phones not working. But --as I and you anticipate-- there comes the discovery of a putatively providential cell phone that doubles as a plug for Nokia brand. But hold on! The device will not function wirelessly in the bunker. All is not lost however. Aided by daughter, Meg has the scientific know-how for wiring the instrument. Then there's diabetic Sarah's crucial need for insulin--which is not in the PR. And much else. Whew!!!
The mood, the style and the views are melodramatic, ominous, Gothic yet at the same time sterile. The house goes from huge to cavernous, much of this through the use of an all-seeing (and very self-conscious) camera which travels and glides all over via special effects that make it swoop, spy, crosscut and see things from odd angles. Disturbing stuff, cleverly done. And depressing, unpleasant stuff too.
Nobody is safe in this picture. The suspense is non-stop and effective, even if you are aware of the movie's core nonsense. You may not bite your nails but you'll either consume your popcorn in febrile fashion, or just forget to dip into the bag. But when you resume normal breathing during the projection, and start using your logic after the movie, you might realize that you've been sold a bill of goods.
Just one example of the plot's numerous inconsistencies. Like the common elevator's door, the PR's heavy metal, sliding door has sensors. It won't close if there's an obstacle. Yet at one point, it does close and crashes a person's arm. Topping this, the arm's howling owner is still able to do impossible things. But when daughter exclaims "We'll never get out of here!" anyone who knows American cinema will say "Oh yes, you will!"
The performances of unsteady-in-every-way Junior and demented killer Raoul are colorfully dumb. Burnham shows brains, know-how and some humanity, but Forest Whitaker's acting, the best and most demanding in the film, also feels as though the fellow wished he were somewhere else, as in a different movie. Jodie Foster, an invariably reliable thespian--even though there's often something cold about her--is solid. She is also well endowed, since during the filming she was pregnant with her second child and had to be shot in ways that would hide much of her body Some of the best playing goes to a sequence of two bright cops who appear at the mansion's door. I suppose that if Joe or Jane Doe were to take all this seriously, they might conclude "Yeah, look what happens to the super-rich!" Some consolation.