Thrillers, at their best, are pressure cookers: Throw your hero in the pot, crank the lid down and toss it over the high flame of life-and-death antagonism. What better pressure cooker than an upper-class survivalist’s bunker, a concrete-and-steel vault stocked with the best essentials (like Perrier water by the gallon) and state-of-the-art surveillance and communications — but nothing as vulgar as weapons. The panic room, hidden in the master bedroom of a 4,200-square foot, high-tone, Manhattan “townstone” (part townhouse, part brownstone) was designed to protect its residents from an inevitable class war. If Marie-Antoinette had had one, she might have kept her head through the French Revolution.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) becomes the proud owner of the townstone and the little fortified box of terror she recognizes as right out of Poe’s (the writer, not the singer) claustrophobic horror tales. But the panic room is not a house, and her house (like the living spaces of all of director David Fincher’s heroes from Alien 3 to The Game) is not a home. It’s as vastly empty — underpopulated by only herself and her prepubescent daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart, looking like an androgynous version of Terminator 2’s young John Connor) — as her post-divorce life. She’s as walled-in as her bedroom’s secret chamber.
Three bumbling burglars — dubious mastermind Junior (an annoyingly manic Jared Leto of Requiem for a Dream), the mysteriously menacing thug-wannabe Raoul (country singer and Slingblade villain Dwight Yoakam) and antiheroic safecracker Burnham (Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog) — stumble upon Meg and Sarah. Meg, unleashing her inner she-wolf in a manner that recalls Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, gathers up her cub and finds safety in the high-tech lair of the panic room. The only problem is that what the housebreakers want is in that room.
Panic Room then descends into an entertaining, but empty, battle of the MacGuyvers that the characters are well aware of: Meg and Burham think up interesting, if fantastic, schemes; Meg needs to keep Burnham and company out; Burnham needs to get in. But, ironically, it’s when Meg must leave the panic room that the picture starts to truly cook and things literally come to a head.
Fincher is arguably the most accomplished director of contemporary thrillers, and Panic Room, like his previous work, is a deep and ironic neo-film noir. Like Scorsese, he has the masterful ability to re-ironize the genre into antiheroic romances complete with unlikely femme fatales and damned redemptions. Panic Room may be flawed, but it follows suit. Though “panic” may be too strong a word, Panic Room at the very least will fill the theater of your local cineplex with thrills.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at email@example.com.