Worth A Look: 37.02%
Pretty Bad: 14.36%
Total Crap: 6.63%
14 reviews, 97 user ratings
by Jack Sommersby
With a nifty story idea but a poor screenplay, even the electic director David Fincher is incapable of elevating this trash to a respectable artistic level. Jodie Foster's remarkable performance and the evocative camerawork help, but not nearly enough to breath life into this DOA cinematic corpse.In the new thriller, Panic Room, by director David Fincher, two-time Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster makes an impressive return to the silver screen after a two-and-a-half-year absence. Her previous film was the stiff and lifeless period drama Anna and the King, where Foster was so emotionally inert and mannered co-star Chow Yun-Fat stole the show right out from under her. Two years before, Foster was again underwhelming in Robert Zemeckis' godawful Contact; in taking on a badly written role, she was unable to summon up much in the way of creative resources, so she went down with the material rather than rising above it. As for Richard Donner's passable Maverick remake in 1994, let's just say that Foster's attempts at broad comedy were akin to a drunk fumbling about for his car keys. Surely, this talented actress was capable of so much more. Gone, apparently, was her instinct and alertness, replaced instead by a studied deliberateness that made her seem outside her performances, as if she were monitoring them from afar, nitpicking over every little detail until not so much as an ounce of freshness or spontaneity was left. Practically overnight she went from Jodie the Great to Jodie the Vapid.
"Showoff Camerawork Can't Carry the Show"
While her role as Meg Altman (a recently divorced single mother who relocates from Massachusetts to a huge four-story Manhattan brownstone) is hardly a plum, Foster at least seems to be acting 'in the moment' for a change, which is a dire necessity in a fast-paced thriller in keeping the audience consistently riveted to a hero's or heroine's plight. Yet she still manages to give shape and emotional shading to Meg. Meg is still eaten up over her rich husband dumping her for a twenty-ish supermodel, but Foster never highlights the suffering and misery -- they're simply blended in with Meg's other emotional layers. Being that there's never really that much screen time dedicated to straightforward dialogue exchanges in Panic Room, it's imperative for Foster to communicate volumes of character information with just a few brushstrokes, and I think this is what allowed her to come out of her shell and give the kind of multi-faceted, remarkable performance which is on more-than-welcome display here. Some may lump it with the take-it-or-leave-it variety because it doesn't call a whole lot of attention to itself, yet it's in Foster's ability to remain vivid while staying in character that enables us to emotionally yield to her throughout (as John Travolta similarly did in his unappreciated performance in the derivative but effective Domestic Disturbance from last year).
Unfortunately, Foster's wonderful star performance is the only genuine pleasure to be had in Panic Room, an abysmal and just plain lunk-headed thriller that's so bad you might think the filmmakers had previously sold their souls to Satan, and 'ol Red Tail had finally come along to collect. Like most high-concept Hollywood films, Panic Room is intended to get by solely on the basis of its concept -- in this case, Meg and her young daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), holed up inside a supposedly impenetrable steel- and concrete-reinforced "panic room" on the top floor while three intruders have the run of the house -- without bothering to develop it beyond the elemental stage. (This is the kind of film where its theatrical trailer manages to outshine the film itself.) Normally, this wouldn't be so surprising if some mediocre hack was credited with the screenplay. In this case, however, the culprit turns out to be David Koepp, who's certainly written some dogs (Mission Impossible; The Shadow) but also some gems (Apartment Zero; Stir of Echoes, which he also directed). Whether Koepp came up with the catchy concept or was hired to develop it, I don't know, but the material is so wispy, and the story so redundant after the forty-five-minute mark, upon realizing there's still an hour left to go, you might find yourself involuntarily groaning.
The way things play out, once Meg and Sarah enclose themselves in the panic room, the villains (Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yokam) spend the rest of the film's running time either attempting to break into or smoke their quarry out of it -- which leads to an ear-splitting barrage of yelling and bickering and enough all-out hostility to easily land them as guests on The Jerry Springer Show. Shamelessly, one of them (Whitaker) is made out to be one of those criminals-with-a-heart-of-gold, and not because any kind of sociological point is being made that criminals are capable of compassion but simply to give the non-Jodie Foster scenes some conflict. With Meg and Sarah insulated from the villains, in lieu of the bare-bones story and shoddy construction, the filmmakers obviously knew they needed to spice things up for the audience.
As a result, we have Jared Leto (his hair done up in cornrows, no less) acting up a firestorm, waving his arms and entire body about in spastic tantrums, giving such an uncouth, extroverted performance that the film dives into the recesses of camp whenever he's onscreen. He plays the ringleader of the group, but instead of coming off as both horrifying and pathetic, he's merely the latter. (It's the kind of gross overacting Crispin Glover dished out as the teen leader in Tim Hunter's River's Edge some fifteen years ago.) With Whitaker playing the saint, Yokum is left playing the remorseless psycho of the lot -- he goes through the majority of the film with a ski mask on, and the audience is left to discern whether this is due to the character not wanting his face spied by the security cameras, or the actor desiring not to be recognized by the general public for appearing in such a cinematic dud.
We don't necessarily need three-dimensional characters to make a thriller satisfactory viewing; with good-enough material, we're sometimes willing to accept those of the two-dimensional variety. Yet even with that, Panic Room fails to deliver because the story never succeeds at working on us on even the most basic responsive level. The story lurches forth and then sputters out, only to sprint off and then hold back and lose even more momentum, because the narrative drive is shaggy and bereft of focus. The film offers up the innocents sealed off and contemplating their next possible moves; then we're left spending too much time watching and listening to the juvenile escapades of the villains; and with this constant back-and-forth juxtaposing, we find ourselves growing more and more distant from the story -- there's not a consistent point of view for us to lock onto.
Every time Foster's acting manages to skillfully pull us in, we're then jerked away from her character and forced to watch the villains discussing exactly what their next step is going to be -- which, naturally, cancels out any kind of tension and suspense because we're always a step or two ahead of the heroine (a fatal flaw in any thriller). With more compact writing and tauter direction, we might have found ourselves riveted to our seats in enjoyable, nerve-jangling fashion. But screenwriter Koepp was only able to come up with cliches we've long grown tired of: the unexpected arrival of unexpected visitors to the door (including two cops); a serious medical condition not revealed until it becomes a problem; a phone not working when needed; and (wouldn't you know!) a villain who just won't stay dead.
That leaves the film's direction to possibly save the day, yet that job has been completely botched by David Fincher, a master visual stylist whose style is the only thing on display here. Fincher's previous films are the pointless Alien 3, the brilliant Se7en, the breathtaking The Game, and the ludicrous Fight Club. He possesses an undeniable eye for uncanny widescreen compositions; and even when the stories which he filmed faltered, there were always his evocative style and seductive editing rhythms to help glide over some of the inconsistencies. The trouble with Panic Room is that his directing is the film, and it's killjoyingly repetitive. Employing the latest in computer technology, Fincher gives us endless showoff camera shots that take the viewer all throughout the house -- and into the walls and wiring and ducts, and even inside a keyhole, as if we're watching everything from the subjective viewpoint of Casper the Friendly Ghost. At first, the camerabatics are seductive and quite wondrous to behold (this is maybe what it was like for filmgoers when first witnessing those smooth one-shots done with the Steadicam), but Fincher doesn't know when the hell to quit with it. Obviously, he had the task of making a film with limited spatial logistics consistently engaging, but he seriously bobbled the ball by diving into the action without establishing the expansive layout of the house more fully.
We're always sure where the characters are, but not always where they are in relation to one another. There are video cameras in the panic room that allow Meg to keep tabs on the villains, but from the way the film's been shot, the story could have involved just a non-descript two-story suburban home, and nary a thing would have changed. The villains are either downstairs or terrorizing Meg on the same floor, and after a while I couldn't help wondering why more of the physical space of the house wasn't better defined to help serve as a labyrinth playground for the conflict to play itself out in, especially being that the panic room itself isn't really used for anything particularly memorable (Meg and Sarah would've generated more audience interest trapped inside of a meat locker). I'm not really giving anything away in revealing that Meg does find herself outside the panic room for a brief interlude during the middle section of the film and an extended one in the latter half, but due to the lack of specificity to the layout of the house, we never really feel as pleasurably bottled-up when she ventures out as we ought to.
This is also due to those ever-roving shots through the walls and over the staircases, which (in a major miscalculation on Fincher's part) winds up expanding upon and opening up the confines of the main setting so we feel more like on-lookers at a spacious Gothic Architectural Digest exhibit and less like effectively manipulated filmgoers. These 'Look, Ma -- I'm directing!' shots soon take us completely out of the story, and, thus, dissipate the immediacy of the goings-on. (Fincher even passes right over Meg's supposed claustrophobia: she has a fit when the panic-room door shuts for less than five seconds at the start of the film yet has no problem in the same sealed-off room several hours later. Some will counter that protecting her child and the 'ol survival instinct overrides her phobia, yet why introduce a condition like this if nothing's actually done with it?)
The filmmakers employ lots of contrivances, and then foul up on a good many due to inefficient handling and a lack of irony. For instance, when the villains start pumping butane gas through an air duct into the panic room that threatens to kill its inhabitants, Meg responds back with a long-stemmed lighter. But, for no discernible reason, before she lights the damn thing, she bangs it around in the duct, causing enough noise to get the villains' attention, and prolonging the moment so our brief exhilaration at her ingenuity has the chance to ebb before her potentially crowd-pleasing action can be saluted. And later, when Meg ventures out of the room while the men are briefly situated below, before she can reach her cell phone, a lamp(!) is knocked over, the men start dashing upstairs, and Meg scrambles to get back. In what could have been a hair-raising episode, Fincher unwisely has this action play out in slow motion, and our being reminded of the film as such due to the obstructive slo-mo technique neutralizes the tension.
I've always stood by my assertion that the original Alien still stands as the greatest fright-fest ever made due to director Ridley Scott's refusal to inappropriately dress up the proceedings with camera-obtrusive artifices. The premise was terrifying in the most primal sense -- seven human beings with only flamethrowers as weapons trying to survive the clutches of an evil, indestructible creature -- and Scott knew he didn't have to push things to get the desired result. He kept things simple, and the horror, as a result, was pure, primal, and undeniable. Fincher, though, winds up pushing against (and sometimes through) a wall for 108 minutes, and the story gets very little mileage out of it. (Ditto the audience).
And the numerous logical lapses! For example, Meg and Sarah beat their fists on one of the panic room walls to make enough noise to alert a neighbor, when they have no neighbor the next wall over (their home doesn't have a connecting one next to it!). And this is substantiated a few minutes later when Sarah tries alerting a sleeping neighbor the next few yards over by using a flashlight to send Morse Code. (Who the hell knows Morse Code anymore?!) Then there's the matter of Yokum's dastardly foe. He's been brought in at the last minute by Leto, but his having been recruited makes little sense. Since it's later revealed that Leto intended on double-crossing Whitaker, why would he add on another partner to later contend with, one who would have brought little to the initial plan anyway? Nothing in this film makes the slightest bit of sense. And unless my eyes deceived me, I could have sworn that Meg, after having smashed a bathroom mirror, walked barefoot across the shattered glass without so much as a spilled drop of blood or emitted yelp. (Die Hard's John McClane should check this chick out!) And if someone can explain to me why Meg's super-rich husband shows up dressed like an everyday patron of a skid-row bar, please drop me a line.
For the most part, you're simply left aghast over just how uninvolving Panic Room turns out to be. It seemed to have a can't-miss story, and I don't think a whole lot of talent was needed to make even a mediocre film out of it. But David Koepp came up with an empty hand, and David Fincher explored only the visual possibilities of the material. For some, this may be enough. But the opening-day crowd I saw this with seemed as bored as I was. The film is certainly beautiful to look at (compliments of lensers Darius Knondji and Conrad Hall, Jr.) but is so, so hollow at the core and just plain dumb. David Fincher has gone on the record by stating he didn't set out to make anything other than a "popcorn movie". Cool. Popcorn movies may be absent of sub-text and of a brain-dead demeanor, but the successful ones generally aren't this inconsistent and lumbering. Fincher can use this as an alibi all he wants, but I doubt even he's going to look back on Panic Room and wish it be included in any kind of career testimonial. See it for Jodie Foster. Better yet, don't see it at all. Rent The Accused or, hell, Disney's Freaky Friday (the film I first developed a childhood crush on her) instead.All the fancy camerawork in the world can't salvage this inept thriller (except maybe in the eyes of dummies).
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originally posted: 12/12/02 01:08:59