Panic Room is a stylish film. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) wants to make sure that’s apparent from the opening credits, dark and ominous shots of Manhattan buildings with 3D lettering hovering portentously as Hermann/Hitchcockian music thrums underneath. A tale of urban spelunking laced with action and violence, it could be called a triumph of style over substance except for one thing: there’s not much here to be triumphant about.
Meg Altman (Jody Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have just moved into 4200 square feet of very choice Manhattan townhouse, part of a settlement after a recent and very messy divorce. One feature of their new digs is a "panic room", a hidden "safe" room protected by feet of concrete and steel that also has a video surveillance system and its own phone line and ventilation. This bizarre clubhouse comes into play during Meg and Sarah’s very first night in the house (stormy and rainy, of course) when three would-be burglars break in and the two women are forced to take refuge. An interesting setup, but then the film deflates when that promising premise eventually leads to nothing more than an average potboiler where all problems can be solved by gunfire.
The entire story takes place within Meg’s home over the course of that single evening (indeed, most of it within that one room). Given that David Koepp’s script doesn’t supply much in the way of innovation, Fincher apparently felt compelled to spice things up by employing every cinematic trick he’s no doubt been dying to try since film school. He takes the camera into keyholes, slithering along inside a garden hose, though the handle of a coffeepot, cracks in walls and drainage pipes. It hovers ghostlike on one floor before stealthily descending to another. But putting lipstick on a chicken still results in… a chicken, and after awhile one wearies of these attempts to make a sedate script more interesting via views not normally found in nature.
A risk in casting someone of Jody Foster’s stature as the lead in such a film is that 99% of the time such a Major Star just can’t be allowed to die, much less be defeated. So the film loses whatever tension might have been provided if a relative unknown had played Meg. The Three Stooges, er, burglar characters don’t help much. Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog, Bird) is the lumbering yet kindly and noble black man, Jared Leto (Prefontaine) is the wiry mastermind who hasn’t quite thought of everything in advance, and Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade) is the sociopathic wacko in a ski mask. Each acts without benefit of any additional personality shadings that might have made them more interesting, and each gets his comeuppance in appropriate fashion. There’s an added complication to being isolated while the bad guys wait outside – Sarah is a diabetic, a wrinkle used in an attempt to ratchet up the tension but one that largely fizzles.
Fincher steps up the gore as the film progresses, eventually ending up with a version of Home Alone without the attempted laughs. Towards the conclusion he throws in a couple of Mission Impossible-style slow motion dashes by Our Heroine. The final denouement borrows from both Wait Until Dark and any standard thriller where Rule 242 is: The Hero(ine) Always Can Devise Instantly Complexly Wrought Schemes That Always Work. Rule 243 (also used here) is: The Bad Guy Is Never Really Dead The First Time.
Panic Room starts out taut and tense, but ends violently and disappointingly simply. It’s a film that tries to think "outside the box", but instead ends up being trapped in one.
– Bob Aulert