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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 29, 2002

'Panic Room' is competent thriller

By Forrest Hartman
Reno Gazette-Journal

PANIC ROOM (Rated R for violence, profanity) Three Stars (Good)

Competent thriller about a divorcee (Jodie Foster) who buys a New York brownstone equipped with an impenetrable bunker. On their first night in the home, she and her daughter use the room to escape burglars. To their dismay, the bad guys refuse to leave, and a standoff begins. Foster is solid and director David Fincher paces the story with precision, but they both battle a convoluted script. Columbia Pictures, 110 minutes.

If there's such thing as a sweet disappointment, director David Fincher delivers it with "Panic Room."

The film is as dark and atmospheric as his previous works — which include the superior "Seven" and "Fight Club"— but it has a distinctly commercial feel. And that's not a compliment.

For the past six years, Fincher has been one of few active directors who can take big stars and big shooting budgets and produce films as smart and edgy as the best independent filmmakers.

With "Panic Room" he forsakes those abilities to deliver a completely mainstream picture. In fact, if it hadn't been so deftly assembled, "Panic Room" would have been a drag. However, it is a competent thriller courtesy of a director capable of much better.

"Panic Room" focuses on Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recent divorcee who moves into a New York brownstone with her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). The home's previous owner was an eccentric who had it equipped with a panic room, a concrete-and-steel bunker that is all but impenetrable. During their first night in the home, the Altmans wake to a burglary. They lock themselves in the panic room only to discover the hoods are in no hurry to leave. So a standoff begins.

The biggest problem with "Panic Room" is that the setup isn't worthy of a 110-minute movie. This could've been a terrific short film or maybe a segment of a more expansive picture, but writer David Koepp was shooting for a feature-length film. To get there, he introduces one convoluted situation after another. In fact, when Meg finally makes the most intelligent move of the whole picture, one burglar looks at another and asks, "Why didn't we do that?" I suppose Koepp added the line to cover his previous idiocy. It might have worked if the audience hadn't asked the same question 30 minutes earlier. Plot holes are forgivable in films that don't take themselves seriously, but when a movie sells itself as an intelligent, gritty thriller, it's obligated to live up to the billing.

Credit Fincher for avoiding complete disaster. The editing is so tight that Fincher doesn't allow one's mind to linger on plot holes, a tremendous help for audience members willing to suspend disbelief. Also, the cinematography is often remarkable.

The initial burglary scene is particularly noteworthy, as the camera sweeps around the expansive brownstone, showing all attempted points of entry in what seems to be one continuous take. Although shot in color, most scenes are washed out and submerged in high contrast shadows, paying tribute to the film-noir greats like "Double Indemnity" and "The Maltese Falcon."

Foster (who inherited the role when Nicole Kidman left the project) also elevates the material, hard selling every moment. She is compelling, even when the material isn't, and that's enough to keep our interest.

The burglars are played aptly by Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto, but each has done better films, and it's those they'll be remembered for.

In the end, "Panic Room" misuses a solid group of filmmakers who we forgive only because of their estimable talents. The result is a movie that's accomplished, but not as gripping as it should have been.

Rated R for violence and profanity.