out of five
: 112 mins
Hugely enjoyable thriller by David Fincher, with Foster back on top form – stylish, thrilling and nail-bitingly suspenseful, this is top quality stuff, and a terrific ‘date-movie’ to boot (though for less than honourable reasons).
Director David Fincher is fast on his way to becoming something of a cult figure, particularly after his last film Fight Club, which, despite flopping at the box office has deservedly become a huge hit on video and DVD and earned itself legions of devoted fans.
Relatively speaking, Panic Room is much more of a straightforward thriller, though the combination of Fincher’s impressive direction and quality performances from Foster, Whitaker and Leto ensure that it is one of the best thrillers to have come along in quite some time.
The basic set-up is simple: Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, a
recently divorced woman who is still very bitter and depressed about the whole thing - her rich husband has shacked up with a supermodel and has bought Foster and her daughter (newcomer Kristen Stewart - excellent) A Huge Bloody Great House as a conciliatory gesture.
While they're looking round the house they discover a specially designed ‘Panic Room’ (all the rage among paranoid rich Manhattanites these days, apparently) - a high-security lock-in room with a phone-line, video surveillance cameras and emergency supplies. They don't give it all that much thought, but - surprise, surprise- it soon comes in rather handy.
Sure enough, on their first night there, three Bad Guys (Forrest Whitaker (nice bloke), Jared Leto (playing against type but pulling it off nicely - he seems to have been told to play it like Jason Lee) and A Mysterious Other Bloke In A Ski Mask) break in looking for something. Foster and daughter take refuge in the Panic Room, only there's one problem – the bad guys want something from inside the Panic Room…
As might be expected from the director of Fight Club and Se7en, this is
impeccably directed stuff. Fincher keeps the potentially static set-up
interesting by sending the camera sprawling all over the house, through
electrical sockets, out via pipe-outlets, down through the floors, even
through the handle of a coffeepot.
Indeed, some of the shots are so impressive that you’ll find yourself wondering 'How the hell did they do that?' There’s also a terrific and imaginative title-sequence, as well as, naturally, one or two nail-bitingly suspenseful set pieces, the best of which will leave you literally gasping for breath.
Whenever a film is remotely suspenseful, the term 'Hitchcockian' gets
bandied about ad infinitum. However, in this case it really fits and it
applies to more than just the suspense sequences - for example, during the various set-pieces you'll find yourself rooting for the bad guys as much as for Foster and her daughter, almost without realising it (a Hitchcock speciality).
Neither Whitaker nor Leto are really evil - they weren't expecting to find anyone in the house and they both have their reasons for being there - so there's a lot of tension as to how far they'll go to get what they want.
The performances are superb throughout – we can be thankful that original star Nicole Kidman had to pull out due to an ankle injury, because Jodie Foster is perfect in the part, combining bitterness, anger, vulnerability and sexuality (largely down to what is probably the skimpiest top she’s ever worn on screen). Apparently she was pregnant for the latter stages of the film (which was shot chronologically for obvious house-destroying reasons), though luckily Fincher never has to resort to hiding her behind tabletops and the like.
Of the rest of the cast, Whitaker is the standout and succeeds in making his character believably sympathetic. However, there is also great support from Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart and Dwight Yoakum (as ‘Raoul’, whose ski mask is genuinely creepy).
The main thing Fincher seems to have taken from Fight Club is an
appreciation of dark humour and this is, occasionally, very funny, even
daring to poke fun at its own plot-holes – e.g. when Foster smashes up the surveillance cameras one of the crooks wonders “Why didn’t we think of that?”
In short, despite the odd credibility-stretching flaw, the tension is
sustained throughout and it's a hell of a ride. It’s also an extremely
effective (if downright sneaky) ‘date-movie’ as you’ll be unlikely to want to go back to an empty house after seeing this. Highly recommended.