Reviewed by: Dr. Kenneth R. Morefield
Starring: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart | Directed by: David Fincher | Produced by: Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp, Cean Chaffin | Written by: David Koepp, Andrew Kevin Walker, Gavin Polone | Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) take refuge from burglars in their house’s impenetrable safe room in “Panic Room”. I am reminded here of “Ocean’s 11”. Both are essentially B-movie projects which attracted star directors (in this case, David Fincher) and, as a result, A-list casts. The plot of the film is pretty bare bones, witnessed by the fact that we know essentially nothing about Meg Altman and her daughter before the premise is set in motion. Meg has just gone through a divorce. She is apparently mildly claustrophobic and her daughter is diabetic. Normally films that give so little to character development usually bore me because they violate Morefield’s maxim: I can’t care about what happens to a character unless I care about the character. Foster gives Meg enough presence, though, that I did care, at least enough to stay interested.
Forest Whitaker plays Burnham, one of the three crooks, and oddly enough we learn more about him than we do about Meg and her daughter. This leads to oddly mixed sympathies. We certainly don’t want Meg to get hurt, but we are supposed to not mind if Burnham gets away. The ambiguity between sympathetic and villainous is one that director Fincher has explored in “Alien 3,” “The Game,” and “Fight Club,” and the theme is particularly interesting here given the ending. Fincher and writer David Koepp seem smart and subtle enough to underplay Burnham’s conflict. Although there are certain things he does not want to see happen or to do himself (including harming the daughter), he is willing to risk them happening in pursuit of the money.
The second essential element of action/suspense films, besides character development, is intelligence. “Panic Room” is above average here. The story progresses fairly neatly as a result of actions set in motion. There aren’t too many examples of someone doing something for no reason, although there are a few examples of people not thinking to do something. There are a few noticeable omissions here—such as the criminals failing to cover up the cameras, thus allowing Meg and her daughter to watch their every move—but at least the protagonists don’t needlessly endanger themselves as happens in many horror movies.
There are two strong social subtexts running through panic room. Burnham is black, and his collaborator makes the point of saying that although he “wants” the money, Burnham “needs” it. This dynamic, combined with Burnham’s eschewing of violence seems to reinforce a class reading of the film. The panic room itself is mentioned early in the film as being an adaptation from medieval times and can be read as a metaphor for the ways in which the larger society excludes the lower class. The other motif is, of course, gender. Meg and her daughter are barricaded by three men. The ugly nature of Meg’s divorce is underscored after she is able to contact her ex-husband from the panic room. He won’t do anything, the daughter insists, “she won’t let him.” The fine home, provided presumably by alimony, is no substitute for the abandoned relationship. When the husband finally does appear, only to be brutally beaten in front of Meg’s cameras, she can only give a primal scream. His demeanor towards his ex-wife remains hostile and his final (failed, of course) showdown with one of the intruders, is filled with irony. When he insists the intruder let his “daughter” go, the ultimatum is hollow given the fact that he, himself let her go in the divorce.
“Panic Room” is an above average suspense thriller that benefits from Fincher’s increasingly sure direction. He has one virtuoso tracking shot and uses filtering and slow motion to give the scenery a cool feeling that raises the tension. It is not a particularly deep film, but it does have more going for it than explosions and gory fights.
Editor’s note: objectionable content includes over 60 uses of the “f” word and other potentially offensive language, including God’s name in vain over a dozen times. Foster is shown throughout the film in revealing attire, though there is no sex or nudity.
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”
”But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Luke 12:18-20).