Let's take Michael Bay for example. Here is a director with a $135 million budget, glorious locations, the Disney corporation backing him and every conceivable production tool known to man at his disposal. But with all that, he couldn't make "Pearl Harbor" worthy. Now David Fincher's "Panic Room" (IMDb listing) is certainly high tech, but the entire film is set in the claustrophobic confines of a room no bigger than a jail cell. Left to his own incredibly intuitive filmmaking devices, the little that Fincher is working with brings out the best in him. "Panic Room" might seem small and modest on the outside, but once in, the picture is an orgy of tension and thrills unmatched by any film in the last year.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have just found the perfect home in the cluttered city of Manhattan. It's a three story brownstone with a special room built into it called a Panic Room. Built for protection, the Panic Room is a small, steel reinforced space with cameras monitoring the entire house. It's outfitted with a phone line and food and water for long days of hiding. During their first night in the house, Meg and Sarah are awakened by three thieves (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto) who have come to retrieve valuables left behind by the previous owner. Though Meg and Sarah escape into the safety of the Panic Room, they soon learn that what the thieves are looking for is located in that very same room, and they'll stop at nothing to get it.
Coming off his career masterpiece, the gloriously chaotic and narcissistic "Fight Club," director David Fincher ("Alien 3," "Seven") has decided to return to his Hollywood roots with "Panic Room." It isn't a sell out, though, just a more entertainment-oriented directing job than what the filmmaker is usually known for. But the change suits his intelligence well, as I wouldn't trust anyone else with this gripping tale of suspense. Fincher is a brilliant visual storyteller, knowing precisely when to keep winding up the suspense and when to cool the picture down. "Panic Room" is a tough film to make, as most of the film takes place in one room. But Fincher, faced with the task of making that one room never appear the same twice, rises to meet that challenge with an array of camera tricks and carefully used computer effects.
The effects provide a unique view of the story unfolding in "Panic Room." While traditionally, the camera would intercut between the happenings in the room and the thieves outside, Fincher's camera refuses to play that game, instead seamlessly roving around the house, wherever the story is most urgent. The camera travels through household appliances, into door locks, down air shafts, and it cranes up and down between floors without cutting. It's a technique that Fincher learned how to manipulate on "Fight Club," but uses to full effect on "Panic Room." The gliding camera keeps the action stimulating and the story tight. Without cuts, the film is free to build more tension. It's one of the first really practical uses of computer effects.
Special attention must be paid to the opening credits as well. Fincher is known for his extravagant use of titles, but "Panic Room" commences on an invigorating note. The titles appear in large, bright white letters as actual extensions of the New York City architecture. An interesting idea to say the least, and a sleek way to open the film, as you are then plunged into darkness for the next two hours. Hitchcock would be proud.
A tiny hullabaloo was raised when original star Nicole Kidman had to leave "Panic Room" due to a knee injury. Her replacement was Jodie Foster, and I consider the change of leads has made the film much stronger. I like Kidman, and really feel she's coming into her own as a lead performer, but for "Panic," Foster is the better choice. Meg is an independent and defiant person, yet still a loving and careful mother, and Foster hits all the right notes with her character. She accomplishes the more physical moments of the film with ease, and brings her trademarked emotional volatility to the role. After a long hiatus from the screen, it's good to see Foster back, and in a role unlike anything she has done before.
While Whitaker, Yoakam and Stewart are all equally as good, the real surprise is how much Fincher gets out of Jared Leto. As the greedy junkie mastermind of the operation, Leto is full of surprises. I had written him off as just another squared-jawed young acting nobody, but Leto impresses here with his rage and vulnerability. I can only hope he can successfully build off this.
There are plenty of delicious suspense set pieces to "Panic Room." A sequence involving Meg's exodus from the Panic Room to retrieve a cell phone, shot in slow motion, should be enough to have you gnaw off your fingernails for good. As will a long set piece where the crooks try to use gas to force Meg and Sarah out of the Panic Room. And that's where "Panic Room" finds its one and only road bump. The film plays on such a tense pitch that it grows tiresome after awhile. The climax is finely played out, but the film runs about 10 minutes too long. By the time the finale rolls around, the fatigue of the situation has set in, and Fincher has exhausted all his tricks.
Even with this small complaint, "Panic Room" works wonders with what little it has.
Filmfodder Grade: A-