July 7, 2003
Locked in a hi-tech, reinforced steel room cowering from the intruders in her house, Meg Altman must protect her daughter and get the violent intruders out any way she can. Sounds like she’s had a run-in with suspicious Daz, but instead it’s just Panic Room on DVD.
There are those people in the world that are security conscious; careful might be the word best used to describe them. They lock the front door between three and five times at night before retiring to bed. They check their car is locked on every door even when using central locking, security cameras and personal alarms give them piece of mind. One such person lived in the house in Manhattan where Meg and her daughter Sarah have just moved into. The house is fitted out with security cameras, electrically controlled locks on every door and window, and something known as a panic room; the last line of defense for someone wanting to stay safe from intruders.
This room is encased in three inch steel and has its own oxygen system, phone line and security system. It is impregnable. This doesn’t come as much comfort to divorcee Meg (Jodie Foster) as she is claustrophobic, so setting foot inside the steel encased room is the last thing on her mind. However when three burglars break into her house in the dead of night believing it to be empty, she is forced to seek solace with her daughter within the panic room. Her first night in her new home didn’t really go to plan.
The three intruders, once inside the rather large for two women on their own house, begin searching for something in a loud and uncaring manner. They believe the house to be empty, yet due to a gross miss calculation on behalf of one of them the house is occupied. Thanks to the inbuilt security system Meg spots the bungling intruders on one of the cameras and manages to gather her daughter and hurriedly make it to the panic room.
This is where the bulk of the film takes place, two women locked inside a room with three men trying to get in. To add spice to everything Sarah is diabetic and fights hard to resist succumbing to an attack. There are also tensions among the three men as Junior (Jared Leto) who has organised the whole affair is being evasive as to what they are actually there to steal. Raul (Dwight Yoakam) gets more edgy as the whole drama drags on and becomes dangerous to both Meg and her daughter and the other intruders. Burnham meanwhile is trying to rationalise the whole thing as he’s basically a good man and refuses to participate in anything that will cause harm to innocent people.
The dynamic between each of the characters is sufficient to create enough interest and conflict to see the film nicely through its middle third. There may be nothing decidedly original about any of the protagonists but it is played, when allowed by the director, to a suitably competent level.
The one thing that does let this film down is the heavy handed direction from David Fincher. Fincher’s violent and nasty direction turned what should have been a tense claustrophobic movie into a rather harsh and unpleasant little film. Scenes of extreme and graphic violence occur at sporadic intervals and don’t fit in with the tone of the film. We don’t need to see a close up shot of someone being shot through the back of the head towards the camera, yet Fincher feels we do. It’s been very much a theme of his work over the years with Fight Club and Se7en suffering from unnecessary graphic violence.
One thing you can say about Fincher’s work is that it’s very stylish, stylish to a fault almost. Coming from a music video background he’s very conscious of the visual image, yet seems to give this more importance over character and tone. You’ll notice throughout his films a tendency to have large sweeping camera shots enhanced through digital effects to create movements that would otherwise be impossible. Panic Room again has one of these as the intruders are seeking entry into the house. The camera follows them around the house from the inside as they probe around outside, traveling through solid walls, floors and other obstacles. It oozes style and is instantly recognisable as Fincher’s work, but sadly so is the unnecessary violence.
This is a strange film for Fincher to undertake, as it was never going to be a runaway commercial success as his previous films would suggest he’d be looking for. Without any A-list male lead the film is headlined by Jodie Foster, and female driven movies are never a huge box office draw. Forrest Whittaker is the lead male in the film, once again playing the same role he has always played. He’s not a bad fellow, deep down he means well but he’s just had bad luck and has ended up in a bad situation where his inner goodness needs to come through. That’s just about every character Forrest has played, and he’s at it again here. This time he’s technical wiz responsible for installing panic rooms, down on his luck and fighting a custody battle he joins up with two criminals to rob a supposedly empty house.
With the rest of the cast being relatively unknown, or at least untested in terms of dialogue driven films it’s clear that Jodie Foster wears the trousers in this film. She is once again terrific; we’ve come to expect nothing less from her. The other two villains of the piece, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam play rather more stereotyped characters. One is the edgy uncertain type, new to the game and eager to please while the other is the old pro, cautious and cold blooded. He even wears a balaclava, so you know he’s up to no good!
Panic Room is one of those films that may not have attracted the attention on release, but down the line it will be looked at again and judged as not bad at all. While having no real faults it never lives up to the promise of its premise (try saying that after a few drinks) but is enjoyable nonetheless. If only it weren’t so violent without warning.