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[whitespace] 'Panic Room'
Foster Child: Kristen Stewart plays Jodie Foster's panicked offspring in David Fincher's claustrophobic new thriller.


Jodie Foster's 'Panic Room' is not as scary as it looks, unfortunately

By Richard von Busack

WHAT YOU SEE in previews for The Panic Room is what you get: a Manhattanite, Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), are trapped in a safe-room in a modern brownstone by three home invaders. The problem is, that's all there is; no great twist in the last reel reveals hidden reasons behind the siege. The previews promise a truly nasty piece of work, but the film proves to be only occasionally tense.

Director David Fincher--of Seven and the wicked satire Fight Club--does impart some style to this basic tale descended from Wait Until Dark and Lady in a Cage. One expects a remarkable set of titles in a Fincher film, and here we get 3-D trompe l'oeil letters hanging in the air in Manhattan, like the latest development in the sinister science of advertising. Fincher's camera placement is adroit, as in the rat's-eye camera crawling around the floorboards, scuttling across the walls to show the chinks in an armored room.

Unfortunately, although The Panic Room functions well as grade-B entertainment, it doesn't ascend to the next level. David Koepp's script has it that Meg and Sarah just moved in, so the house is furnished mostly with cardboard boxes illuminated by cinematographer Conrad Hall's baleful light--there's nothing in the house for the eye to play with. Fincher has conquered many of the difficulties of shooting in a closet-sized room, but he's neglected the larger Hitchcock-style question of guilt that would really pull an audience in, making them identify their own weaknesses with the star.

Once again, the need to make a heroine "sympathetic" has kept her without a real personality--Meg is a heroic blank. Foster can be a very remote star, and in this case, she's playing a divorcee who got a fortune in a settlement. Her new house, containing the panic room, is bigger than 95 percent of the theaters this movie will show in. The Panic Room is as dim on the problems of class struggle as John Schlesinger's failed thriller Pacific Heights, in which landlords are menaced by an evil tenant. Wouldn't it have been to The Panic Room's advantage to make Meg slightly the rich bitch, so she could redeem herself in a crisis? It might not be repellent to see her like that; musician and actress Ann Magnuson, who has a small part as a real estate agent, certainly knows how to make a brittle, self-centered urban woman attractive. One of the robbers is Forest Whitaker (his partners in crime are a simp and a psycho, respectively played by Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam), and the tremendously humane actor makes one identify more strongly with this hunter than with the hunted. At the happy ending, it seems that Fincher, for all his attention to the minuscule details of filming, has lost track of the one person who mattered the most.

The Panic Room (R; 108 min.), directed by David Fincher, written by David Koepp, photographed by Conrad Hall and starring Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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