David Fincher is not a household name. Yet. But, when you mention the names of his films, Fincher quickly becomes associated with a daring, inventive style mixed with dangerous, gloomy material that most mainstream directors would never have the courage to create. His third installment of the “Alien” series is the most underrated; the grisly, dark detective story “Seven” is a modern masterpiece; “The Game” keeps the audience guessing up until the very end; and “Fight Club,” despite a variety of errors, has somehow reached a whole generation of people sick of their technological society. In a short time, Fincher has given himself a mini-legacy and it is possible that one day his name might be as big and well respected as Ridley Scott or Jonathan Demme. “Panic Room” does not do much to tarnish his reputation, but it does nothing to boost it.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), recently divorced (but not from Robert Altman) and very well off, has found a new home for her and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). Sarah is a diabetic girl with tomboyish tendencies. In the opening minutes, a slow and informative real estate tour is given of their new Brownstone in Manhattan. While the home’s sale hinges on this tour, so does the film’s, as the viewer now knows the layout for all the upcoming action. The four floors, the elevator and the panic room are now common knowledge for the superior feeling audience.
But wait, what exactly was that last part?
Yes, a panic room, in case of break-in, with security monitors of the entire home, its own ventilation system, supplies to last any length of time endured, and most importantly, steel walls so no can possibly get in.
Fighting impossibility are the man with the plan, Junior (Jared Leto, “Requiem for a Dream”), security expert Burnham (Forrest Whitaker, “Ghost Dog”) and a ski-masked, gun-carrying Raoul (country singer Dwight Yoakam, “Sling Blade”). The Altmans apparently moved in a little earlier than they were supposed to and Burnham immediately wants to forget the plan, he wants whatever is inside that room but nothing to do with any necessary violence. Junior may have thought of the plan, but that’s probably the only clever thought to ever come out of his head, and Raoul remains “dangerously mysterious,” while not wanting to leave. So, the bad guys cannot get along but the good guys are stuck inside the room. From here on out, it becomes a battle of the wits.
The first act plays out slowly with Fincher’s visual mastery providing all the excitement. Combining a freewheeling camera with computer special effects, the camera supplies angles and movements that the human eye could never achieve itself. The camera darts inside keyholes and flies down floors, nearly hitting nearby objects. It is elegant cinematography that mostly departs when the game of cat and mouse begins.
One of the reasons Fincher’s films have provided such excitement is their quality to throw plot twists at the viewer every five minutes while never tidying things up at the end in a “perfect world” scenario. A fault of “Panic Room” is David Koepp’s script keeps the audience continuously guessing but makes it all too easy for that guess to be right. “Panic Room” thinks it is being unpredictable while wallowing in predictability. Even in the end, the film can be admired for its restraint. In not creating multiple endings, the way thrillers so often do these days, Fincher’s attempt to continually shock and surprise plays out in mostly disappointing and banal ways.
“Panic Room” is not devoid of mesmerizing sequences and performances, they just seem to be overshadowed by clumsy dialogue and conventional sequencing. Jodie Foster is terrific as the strong and intelligent Meg. In a role originally intended for Nicole Kidman, Foster proves that she should have been the first choice and not just some backup.
Forrest Whitaker once again plays the sensitive, concerned antagonist and he once again plays it well. With those twitching eyes and husky build Whitaker seems perfect for a the role of an insane villain, but luckily for the viewer he just doesn’t have it in him to shed off his kindness and turn to clich