Most of my reviews so far have been very male orientated: Reservoir Dogs, Fight Club, American Animals, L.A. Confidential, The Deer Hunter. The underrepresentation of women and the type of secondary roles that they’re often forced to play is something I’ve discussed recently – thus far I’ve only done about four films or series with a leading female character. I know, this is bad, and disturbingly many of them depicted women in strip clubs or as helpless victims. Therefore, I’m shaking it up with Panic Room today.
Meg (Jodie Foster) and her diabetic daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have only just moved into their new home on the Upper West side, with a nice added feature of a panic room. So when three intruders, Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Junior (Jared Leto) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), break in on their first night, they have the perfect place to hide… right?
Because what these burglars want is inside the panic room. Yeah. Awkward.
It’s a long, tense game of cat and mouse. Suspense is the main aim of this game. Luckily, David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) directs and unsurprisingly very well. His obvious flair and the camera work is also excellent. Sometimes it could be stock still, or sweeping over a surface. He tempers the action with scenes full of foreboding. We stare at rooms uncharacterised with possessions. A newly inhabited house yet to become a home.
Inside the panic room we see distorted, black and white and flickering CCTV, our protagonists struggling to see what the intruders are planning – or even where they are. Sound refuses to seep between the two groups, creating a sense of disconnect despite their close encounters. In one particularly good moment, with Meg runs out of the room to grab her cellphone, all sound is cut, and the shot is rapidly slowed down. It’s touches like these that make him great director. We don’t hear a lamp exploding, but instead the alarmed reaction of the men. If ever you want a man to create an intense, gritty atmosphere, Fincher’s your man.
Panic Room is not about complex characters, or arcs, or development, or ‘human condition’. It is mainly about spending a lot of money on creating a lot of fun – for the audience, of course – definitely not the characters. It’s a thriller, with a simple but effective plot.
The cast is a very interesting one to look at. Jodie Foster is a great actor, as seen from the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver and The Accused (which she won an Oscar for), and only two nights ago (at the time of writing) won Best Supporting Actress at The Golden Globes for The Mauritanian. As well as acting, Foster has directed a number of films herself. She typically plays strong, powerful roles, and Panic Room is no different. While Meg seems helpless and exuding vulnerability in her new house since the breakup of her marriage, even stuttering in stilted conversations with her daughter, she really comes into her own when she’s trapped in the room, and the same applies to the film. When the criminals have extracted the money from the panic room, one of them severely injured, they finally try to escape, and Meg roams the house with a hammer. It has almost a Shining feel to it. Who is the predator and who is the prey?
The three men are interesting:
- Forest wants the money but not to hurt anyone
- Junior wants the money but doesn’t mind hurting someone
- Raoul wants someone to get hurt just as much as getting the money
The treachery and lack of trust between them was probably one of the most interesting parts of the film. While I don’t think Jared Leto is the best actor, or at least pretty limited, he plays the caricature of a hot blooded, foolish ring leader well. Raoul, despite being sadistic, gives a bit of lighter, comedy factor that is sometimes required in a tense outing.
But this film is heavily flawed. It’s let down partly due to predictability. While the small details offer variety and keep you on your toes, the general flow is unoriginal. It required brave writing, but it wasn’t delivered. When it reached its climax it was all too predictable, which was a shame. They went crowd pleasing. What would be the final twist or turn of the knife? Unfortunately, it never came.
But Forest Whitaker, on the other hand. What more needs to be said. I’ve never seen him give a bad performance, and while he doesn’t have the greatest range – he’s not a transformative actor like a Dustin Hoffman – there’s always a vulnerability and world weariness that is constantly captured beautifully. Whitaker provides a nice balance to the criminal group.
I liked Kristen Stewart as the daughter. She became famous, obviously, with the Twilight saga. Both her and Robert Pattison have worked hard to connect with a more adult film audience, and while not always successful, films like Seberg and American Ninja again demonstrate her talent. It will be interesting if like Foster herself she can finally move on from her cinematic beginnings. Equally, will Robert Pattinson cope with the mainstream as the next Batman in 2022?
This action-thriller is well paced with some superb acting. The tension rises and rises till you think it can’t get any more suspenseful. I enjoyed this film. But a lack of realism, and a one-trick plot means Panic Room doesn’t reach it’s full potential. In truth, I expected more from Fincher.
It’s unfair to fault Panic Room because it achieves what it sets out to in the simplest of terms. A thriller in every sense, apart from the vital one: delivering the killer shock or pay off that a suspenseful masterpiece would produce.
I started off talking about Jodie Foster, who’s adult career – you could argue – started in 1976, and her recent Golden Globe award in 2021 demonstrates she isn’t slowing up. 45 years. To have delivered the breadth of work that she has done and sustain a varied, high quality career for so long is nothing short of astonishing. I wish I could say the same for Panic Room.
This is a guessing game film. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to guess.
Panic Room – 7.5 out of 10