Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: "Panic Room" is a Sweet Thriller

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 25 (of 2002) by Leroy Douresseaux

Panic Room (2002)
Running time:  112 minutes (1 hour, 52 minutes)
MPAA - R for violence and language
DIRECTOR: David Fincher
WRITER: David Koepp
PRODUCERS: Ceán Chaffin, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp, and Gavin Polone
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Conrad W. Hall (D.o.P.) and Darius Khondji (D.o.P.)
EDITORS: James Haygood and Angus Wall
COMPOSER: Howard Shore


Starring: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakum, Jared Leto, and Patrick Bauchau

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) has left a messy divorce and is looking for a new home for her and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). She finds a beautiful mansion style brownstone/townhouse with a panic room, a sort of safe room or medieval keep with cameras, monitors, and supplies in which one can hide from and hold up against intruders. When three men (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakum) break in her home, Meg and Sarah barely escape into the panic room only to learn that what the three men want is inside room with them.

Directed by David Fincher (Seven, The Fight Club), Panic Room is the kind of adult thriller of a quality that is truly scarce. It is the kind of movie that relies on the skill of a capable and talented director, which Fincher continually proves himself to be with each film. He begins to build levels of intensity, layer upon layer, from the film’s opening shots (with a beautiful and evocative opening credit reel over the New York City skyline) to the closing shots that only barely lets up as the film fades.

Fincher puts the actors through the paces, but they are up to whatever the task at hand. Jodie Foster in insanely intense and intensely dramatic. Of all the cast, she has to not only sell this movie, but a successful execution of the premise relies on her. From fear to bravery, from delirium to determination, Ms. Foster is the face of Fincher’s dramatic exercise. The rest of the cast is also quite good. Ms. Stewart plays Sarah as definitely being her mother’s daughter, mirroring a range of emotions similar to her mother’s. Although Leto’s Junior is the criminal mastermind of the operation, Whitaker’s Burnham and Yoakum’s Raoul carry the show, both quietly mixing a sense of dread and fear that makes their characters more desperate and more dangerous.

Fincher also puts his camera through the paces. It weaves, dodges, and chases, making surprising discovers in a mad dash to create intensity. However, the film itself isn’t a reckless, mad dash. It is evenly paced, and though Fincher uses some of his pictorial and stylistic quirks needlessly, he creates a drama with a sense of terror in the tradition of Rear Window. That, in an era of hyped up SFX films, in refreshing. The genre elements of a thriller: terror and suspense are but beautiful window dressing to the drama.

In Panic Room, every character has a story that makes them more than stock characters. This is a testament to veteran screenwriter David Koepp’s skill in making three-dimensional characters. Whatever fate a thriller has in store for its characters holds more thrill if the characters are more than paper cutouts. If we care for them, we don’t want them in danger. If the villains have real motivation, there are more dangerous.

Kudos to Fincher above all else. Panic Room is that proverbial edge of your seat thriller, but he doesn’t eschew the meat of the story to serve his style. He remains visionary because he can turn the story into powerful visual images. He’s patient and allows the camera, our eyes to survey the scene of the brilliant cat and mouse game. Instead of choppy and quick editing, Panic Room is deliberate, almost sexy in the suspense that it unveils before us. This is the kind of special film that you know you want to see.

8 of 10

2003 Black Reel Awards: 1 nomination: “Theatrical - Best Supporting Actor” (Forest Whitaker)

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