Panic Room is a B-grade thriller, given an A-grade gloss by director David Fincher.It’s about a mother and daughter (Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart) trapped inside the secure “panic room” of a posh New York apartment. Unfortunately for them, waiting outside is a trio of obstinate thieves who won’t leave without the loot that’s also hidden in the panic room.
Production on Panic Room was plagued with problems. The initial cinematographer quit after a dispute with Fincher, and Nicole Kidman was forced to drop out after shooting commenced because of injury. Although Jodie Foster is a good physical match for the actress playing her daughter, she’s miscast in Kidman’s role.
The character development in David Koepp’s screenplay depended on contrasting characters - a glamorous trophy-wife mother and tomboy daughter - learning to cooperate after being thrown together, initially by the father-husband walking out and then by confinement in the panic room. All this subtext, banal as it may have been, is rendered unbelievable with Foster in the role. It’s hard to imagine a less likely trophy wife, and she already has an obvious bond with her daughter. As a result, Panic Room becomes little more than a routine violent thriller.
The claustrophobic setting lends itself to games of ingenuity, but Koepp’s protagonists quickly abandon initial attempts to outwit each other. Like a generic TV crime drama, Panic Room ends with the hero and villain rolling around on the floor scrabbling to retrieve a gun. The plotting is tight, but the screenplay is mechanically constructed and the lack of human interest makes for tepid viewing.
The burglars are painfully clichéd. Koepp and Fincher don’t play with our expectations at all and it’s easy to pick their fates. There’s the sensitive safe cracker who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt (Forest Whitaker), the loud-mouthed wise guy who thinks he’s in charge (an irritating Jared Leto) and the silent psychopath who brought weapons when he was told not to and refuses to remove his balaclava (Dwight Yoakam). The acting styles of these three clash so markedly you can’t help wondering if this was deliberate or an accidental and unavoidable consequence of casting.As you’d expect from the director of Fight Club, Panic Room is technically and conspicuously dazzling, filled with meticulously planned shots taking us into and over and under and through every aspect of the house. But this polish doesn’t make the film involving. The collaboration between such an innovative director and talented actor should have been an event; Panic Room is a wasted opportunity.