The new thriller Panic Room contains three or four moments of genuine profundity and excitement, yet considering the involvement of visionary director David Fincher, three or four thrills simply aren't enough amid contrived plotting and long stretches of boredom.
A high level of skill and a uniquely impressive visual style have been hallmarks of Fincher's career over the past decade, from the shocking serial killer drama Seven to the comical genre deconstruction of The Game to the revolutionary theatrics of Fight Club. However, Panic Room is conspicuously missing both Fincher's signature visual flair and his characteristic strong storytelling. Throughout his career (culminating with Fight Club), Fincher has moved further and further away from high concept; Panic Room is high concept as they come. Even the creative opening credits (a Fincher trademark) are lame in the new movie.
Set on Manhattan's Upper West Side (a very different Upper West Side from the one depicted in Kissing Jessica Stein), Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recently divorced single mother who moves along with her androgynous daughter (Kristen Stewart) into a four-story townhouse equipped with a seemingly impenetrable "panic room", supposedly to keep the inhabitants safe in the event of a home invasion.
On their first night there, a trio of thieves break in to steal a treasure left behind by the previous owner: "good" bad guy Forest Whitaker, "bad" bad guy Dwight Yoakam, and their associate, white-guy-with-cornrows Jared Leto (looking almost exactly like actor/L.A. Laker Rick Fox).
Fincher violates the first rule of the enclosed-space thriller: he fails to strongly establish what is where, and the relationships of different parts of the space to each other. This makes the crucial parts of the film very hard to follow - especially since the bulk of the film is set at night, and the early tour of the apartment is done in daylight, where nothing looks the same.
Panic Room, while containing a handful of impressive scenes and images, also falls victim to all sorts of contrivances and plot holes - why don't the thieves just walk away when they find out Meg and her daughter are home? Why do Meg and her daughter so vigorously defend a treasure that doesn't even belong to them? Why is Meg's ex-husband brought into the plot? Also, the story seems to unfold in real time, until we find out that three hours have passed instead of 90 minutes.
That said, the performances are excellent throughout. Foster, in her first movie in nearly three years, plays the character with the same mix of strength and vulnerability she has brought to her best roles. The criminals do well despite dealing with cliched bad guys fighting amongst themselves material; Yoakam shows again that he's as good as anyone at playing an over-the-top creepy villain (see Sling Blade). And long-forgotten Twin Peaks actor Ian Buchanan turns up in a bit part as a real estate broker. As I wrote upon Fight Club's release in 1999, it was an important film with important themes, which demand to be talked about.
David Fincher had the chance to build on Fight Club with another film that continued his upward career trajectory while also bearing his personal signature. A minor misfire, Panic Room likely won't derail Fincher's ascension to the A-List; however, it's unfortunate that such a skilled filmmaker would direct a picture that amounts to nothing more than just another thriller.