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Panic Room (2002) starstarstar

Reviewed 2002-10-05
: With its claustrophobic set and tight cast, Panic Room could have been a stageplay. But then we would have seen the riveting turmoil, intelligence and intensity in the face of Jodie Foster, or the moral equivocation and surprising goodness in Forest Whitaker. At bottom, this film is a game of chess told in the visual style of a thriller. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Alien³, and two Madonna videos, among others) employs physics-defying photography to get inside not just the minds of the characters, but the very walls of the house, which is arguably a character itself. The plot is simple: recently divorced Meg Altman (Foster) and her diabetic daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) buy a house formerly owner by a paranoid millionaire. In it is a "panic room" -- a steel cage set apart from the world where its owner could be independent and safe (as if one could be safe and independent, as Meg discovers). Three burglars, nominally led by Junior (Jared Leto in scruffy cornrows and beard), but guided by former panic room installer Burnham (sad-sack Whitaker), and accompanied by increasingly psychotic Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), think the house is empty and proceed to relieve it of several millions in bearer bonds.

Then the occupants find they are not home alone as the burglars find they have a complication to their plan. But when Meg and Sarah pop into the panic room, they learn by signs flashed into their Sony video monitors -- shameless product placement by the film company's parent corporation -- that what the burglars seek is in the room where they are hiding,. Plot simplicity aside, there is character development and growth, as well as surprises enough to keep the tension building. And there aren't as many plot holes as you usually find in your garden variety, fast-paced thriller: rarely did I want to give the victims advice or second-guess them. In fact, I think they behaved like real people, even though actors like Foster and Whitaker have too much presence to be taken for "real people"!

Screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man, Stir of Echoes, and the first two Jurassic Park films) keeps the action simultaneously visceral and intellectual: the game alternates between chess and poker, with the winning hand, or winning move, almost always in doubt. The room that keeps our victims safe also serves as their prison; the job that should have been a smash-and-grab for the burglars becomes a test of resolve. Each of the characters is trapped in his or her own restraints, and the stage is set so small and so spare that each has to reach deep inside to find the resources with which to prevail. Maybe it's because they are insightful actors, or maybe it's because three of the four adults in the cast are directors themselves, but what could have been a run-of-the-boards stageplay ends up a thrilling film.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.