Jodie Foster stars as Meg Altman, a recently divorced woman who moves to a gigantic Manhattan house with her daughter Sarah (11 year old tomboy Kristen Stewart). A rich, paranoid old man used to live there, and he had a “panic room” installed, i.e. an impossible to open room equipped with security monitors giving a view of every corner of the building where one can hide in case of, say, an intrusion. And what do you know, on the very first night that Meg and Sarah move in, the house is attacked by three robbers! Thus begins a long, tense night the two locked in the panic room, while the thugs put to the test its alleged infallibility…
That’s it, that’s the story. We don’t even get to know the characters, though we do get a extended scene in which the girls take a tour of the house. I guess this is necessary to establish the geography of the premises of the remainder of the film but it also illustrates the film’s main problem: it’s more interested in its set than in its characters. I know this is just a cat-and-mouse thriller, not a psychological study, but by giving us almost no insight into who the characters are, it’s harder to invest ourselves in their ordeal. I didn’t find myself caring much about their well being. And anyway, they’re in an impossible to open room, what’s to fear?
Ok, writer David Koepp does have a few nifty twists in his bag to make things worse, but there are even more really dumb moves on the part of his characters and some rather contrived complications. This is the kind of movie where everything could wrap up in twenty minutes, but sheer bad luck or stupidity always comes in the way! Clueless neighbours, phones which don’t work, gullible cops… If that’s not enough, let’s make the daughter diabetic, that’ll screw things up! It might become ridiculous if it wasn’t for the actors, who generally manage to sell even the most preposterous twists. Foster is wonderful, of course, making the most out of a barely developed character. She looks great too; she was a few months pregnant when the film was shot, and she fills that tank top deliciously! I liked the bad guys too, even though they’re non-specific types. Jared Leto is good as the amusingly manic leader, Dwight Yoakam is appropriately menacing, with or without his ski mask, and Forest Whitaker is compelling as a thief who can’t quite forget his kind nature, which makes him sort of a tragic figure.
The solid cast puts “Panic Room” above the usual straight-to-video thriller fare, as does Fincher’s distinctive visual style, with sombre, gorgeous photography and inventive shot composition. There are a few jaw-dropping seemingly unbroken sequences where the camera travels around the house, passing smoothly through walls and ceilings, zooming into minuscule details and setting up perfectly who is doing what and where. The sound editing is sharp, and the Hermannesque score by Howard Shore is effective. Yet, no matter how technically superb the film can be, it’s oddly devoid of tension. It rarely ignites, and what sparks we get are few and far between. For an average filmmaker, this might be a nice addition to a résumé but for Fincher, this is a disappointment.