[Screen It]

(2002) (Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A trio of criminals tries to lure and force a mother and her daughter out of a secure room in their new home that contains something the men want.
After her recent divorce from husband Stephan (PATRICK BAUCHAU), Meg Altman (JODIE FOSTER) and her teenage daughter Sarah (KRISTEN STEWART) are looking for a new place to live. They think they find it in a unique and rather immense brownstone in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Among its many features is a secret "panic room," a secure shelter just off the master bedroom complete with it impenetrable walls, a separate ventilation system and phone line from the main house, and a bank of surveillance monitors showing most of the home's interior.

The room makes Meg feel claustrophobic, but she figures she'll never use it. On their first night in their new home, however, a trio of burglars has arrived there, unaware that anyone has moved in yet. Once in, however, Burnham (FOREST WHITAKER), Junior (JARED LETO) and the newest addition to their team, Raoul (DWIGHT YOAKUM), decide they can't turn back.

When Meg finally realizes there are intruders in her home, she manages to grab Sarah from a floor down and seal themselves inside the panic room just in time. Once inside, they can see the criminals' whereabouts, but Meg then realizes that she forgot to activate that room's phone line and her cell phone is still in the bedroom.

Using the whole house intercom system, Meg tries to bluff the criminals into leaving, but Burnham, who makes a living installing such secure rooms, knows she couldn't have contacted the police. The criminals then let Meg know that what they want is in fact inside the very room where she and Sarah are hiding.

As the criminals then secure the rest of the house so that Meg and Sarah couldn't escape or call for help even if they left the room, they try to figure out how to lure or force the two from there, all while Meg tries to figure out how to thwart their efforts, get them to leave and protect herself and Sarah.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
While crime has always been a constant thorn in the side of civilized society - and unfortunately probably always will be - the market for attempting to prevent it has never been bigger. Although I don't know the specific numbers, I'd hazard a guess that money cumulatively spent on locks, deadbolts, car clubs and elaborate security and alarm systems, et al. probably meets or exceeds what the criminals manage to steal. I suppose that's how it should be, but it does make one ponder about exactly who's profiting from crime.

One of the more recent and fairly expensive options is to build what's called a "safe room" into one's home. Somewhat akin to the fallout shelters of the 1960s, the rooms are designed to protect homeowners from outside elements - this time criminals rather than radiation or hungry neighbors - until any sort of intrusive criminal behavior is over.

Such a room is the setting for "Panic Room," the latest effort from director David Fincher, the filmmaker known for his gritty and grisly cinematic works such as "Fight Club" and "Se7en." Featuring a mother and daughter seeking refuge from a trio of criminals who've broken in on their first night in their new home, the film is a mostly engaging and riveting, cat and mouse thriller.

While the notion of a family holed up in such an impenetrable fortress waiting for the criminals to take what they want and then leave might sound rather limited in both potential and setting, Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp ("Stir of Echoes," "Jurassic Park") manage to milk the premise for everything it's worth and then some.

Most of that obviously stems from the surprisingly simple but highly effective setup. As mother Jodie Foster ("Anna and the King," "The Silence of the Lambs") and daughter Kristen Stewart ("The Safety of Objects") tour the property before buying it and moving in, they're shown the safe room and thus learn, along with us, the particulars involving it. The filmmakers manage to introduce such exposition into the story without it feeling too forced or contrived, but anyone who's seen a commercial for the film will already be aware that it's going to come into play anyway.

The story then quickly inserts the three disparate and desperate criminals - played by Forest Whitaker ("Light It Up," "The Crying Game"), Jared Leto ("Requiem For a Dream," "Girl, Interrupted") and Dwight Yoakum ("The Newton Boys," "Sling Blade") - into the mix, as well as the information that Whitaker's character has a background in installing such rooms and thus knows what to expect.

What he and the others don't anticipate, however, is for anyone to have moved in yet, while the new occupants can't imagine that what the criminals want is in the now sealed room with them. The rest of the film - really the majority of it - then focuses on the criminals trying to figure out how to lure or force the mother/daughter duo out, while the two of them deal with countering their measures and trying to figure out how to get them to leave and/or summon outside help.

The result is scene after scene of cat and mouse moments, with plenty of obstacles thrown into both parties' ways to make things more difficult for them and thus entertaining for us. Of course, if you don't like entries in this genre, you'd probably be wise to stay clear of this picture. On the other hand, if you enjoy generally well-made ones with taut direction, smart writing (where the ladies realistically react and respond rather than act in the standard "Wait here while I go into the dark room by myself without turning on the lights" fashion), and good performances, then this effort will probably satiate your appetite.

On the menu is Fincher's decent and occasionally masterfully conceived and executed suspense scenes, Koepp's often terrific dialogue, and composer Howard Shore's ("The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Se7en") effectively suspenseful score.

The real highlight, however, is the highly visual work of dual cinematographers Conrad Hall (2nd Unit work for "Sleepy Hollow," "Fight Club") and Darius Khondji ("The Beach," "Evita"). Their camera is always on the move, often floating or zipping from room to room and physically through floors like an unencumbered elevator. That, and the nifty opening title sequence make the film visually arresting from start to finish.

That leaves the characters and the performances of those who play them. While nothing that will garner any award nominations, the efforts are generally good, especially considering what's normally found in this sort of film.

Whether it's the natural credibility of the mother/daughter pairing or the unlikable but fairly realistic criminals, the characters don't feel contrived or recycled, and the performances from Foster and Whitaker are compelling. Of course, it's debatable whether that can be attributed to what the filmmakers do or simply what the performers automatically bring to the characters in spite of the limited storyline, but it works nevertheless. Since we're allowed and/or slyly manipulated to care about the victims, that makes the suspense and action scenes that much more effective.

Now for the criticisms, although there's more wishful thinking with them than full-fledged complaints. While there are probably enough story surprises and complications for many viewers, I would have liked to have seen more.

Although she doesn't have much time to do so, I kept waiting for Foster's character to either ask the criminals what they want so that they can take it and leave, or for her to start searching for whatever it might be. By doing so, she could have uncovered a few other surprises and/or tools that would be useful to her.

Then again, she, her daughter, and/or her ex-husband could have been rich and/or famous and she'd thus think that the criminals were there to kidnap them. The fun twist on that could have been the criminals initially not knowing that, but having it be another surprise for them, and thus put a spin on their plans.

From a logistical standpoint, I was surprised that the criminals didn't destroy all of the cameras once they realized someone was in the house and could thus see and later identify them (or tape them on video for the police). I also would have imagined the otherwise well-equipped house would have microphones planted all around to hear as well as see what was going on.

Had the former been added without the criminals' prior knowledge, that could have added a fun twist and surprise for either party after the said destruction of the cameras. I can just imagine the mother and daughter hearing the characters in the house, but not knowing whether they're in the basement or just outside the sealed door leading into the panic room. It would also help explain a scene that is present and involves the police, but isn't entirely credible as presented.

Of course, all of that's just the screenwriter in me wanting to make things even better, but that's not intended to detract from what's otherwise a generally taut and effective little thriller. While clearly not up to best of Hitchcock's similar efforts or even this director's previous films, this highly commercial picture is certain to keep many viewers on the edges of their seats. "Panic Room" delivers the goods and thus rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed March 13, 2002 / Posted March 29, 2002

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