Panic Room

Panic Room is not the typical ‘cat and mouse’ thriller since both sides alternately assume the role of aggressor and victim

There are times in each of our lives when we naturally feel extremely vulnerable. When major aspects of our lives change there is a sense of excitement but also a lingering feeling of isolation from the familiar trappings of ours lives. This is the time that Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) finds herself in at the beginning of Panic Room.

Recently divorced from her husband, she and her 11-year-old daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are starting over with their move into an incredible Manhattan apartment. My wife is into real estate and she would love to have had this listing. It is a four-story brownstone in an upscale neighborhood. We get the geography of the place in a very natural fashion during the initial walk through for Meg and her daughter. The previous owner was more than a bit paranoid. He had the apartment outfitted with a state of the art security system including the panic room. This is steel and concrete room with its own air supply, phone and is completely impenetrable. On their first night there Meg is awoken but a group of men breaking in. These men are after the reported fortune hidden there by the eccentric former owner. The head of the intruders is Burnham (Forest Whitaker), a man that has spent his life in the security field protecting people from just what he is attempting. Along for the theft are Junior (Jared Leto) and the mysterious Rauol (Dwight Yoakam). What unfolds in this tale is a high stakes chess game, a battle of wills and wits between Meg and Burnham. In Burnham’s favor are his expertise, a complete knowledge and understanding of the panic room. In Meg’s favor, the combination of animal instincts of a mother protecting her young and the innate intelligence this woman possesses. In order to be successful with an intelligent thriller like Panic Room, you need intelligent characters. Something Panic Room delivers.

Several reviewers have also compared Panic Room to a chess game and that is the best way to describe it. Panic Room is not the typical ‘cat and mouse’ thriller since both sides alternately assume the role of aggressor and victim. There is a delicate balance of attack and defense seen here, one party moves, the other counters. Each party has a clearly defined objective and has to constantly alter their strategy in response to the other. Panic Room could have easily degraded to a formula thriller, the hapless mother and the ruthless criminal. Instead, we are presented with a taut, psychological masterpiece that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Few actors can provide the level of commitment Ms Foster does. She immerses herself in her role, wearing her character like a comfortable pair of old jeans. As Meg she presents herself as the protective mother and a resourceful adversary. There is empathy in her performance that immediately connects the audience to her character on a real emotional level. Whitaker has redeemed himself for Battlefield Earth. This actor has a gentleness about him that transcends any role he takes on. Softness to his voice and demeanor that presents a calm exterior even when the actions he is taking are sinister. He plays Burnham as a man that has grown tired of protecting the money of others for a paycheck that doesn’t even register with his clients. He is a man that wants more out of life and is willing to risk everything to obtain it. Leto seems to be the actor favored by directors to be inflicted with disfigurement. In his films he gets to be burned, battered and otherwise abused. He does it so well! After breaking into his craft with ‘My So Called Life’ he has found his niche as the character that invokes sympathy in very un-sympathic situations.

David Fincher is a director willing to take chances. His films are often brutal, displaying the darker sides of life. Like his previous films ‘Seven’ and ‘Fight Club’, Fincher realizes that it’s all in the pacing. The required expository material is presented for the most part up front in the story but there are little tidbits given as the story unfolds. His background material is tightly packed. In the first 15 minutes of Panic Room we get to know a lot about Meg and Sarah even though the full impact of the information does not dawn on us until much later in the story. His use of sets is exacting. We get the geography of the apartment in the very natural way of viewing a potential new home. As we watch these scenes we absorb the information so that when we need it seems familiar to us. His use of unusual camera angles is not gratuitous as it is with so many directors. Each shot is framed in such a manner that the audience is kept off balance, wondering what will come next. The lighting is another aspect of Fincher’s style where he shows minute attention to detail. The contrast between light and shadow mirror the emotions displayed by the actors. He takes the material presented in the story and brings it to a level of realism few can achieve. He also knows how to get the best out of his actors. This task is more difficult here since the leads have all directed films themselves.

This Panic Room disc is part of the Columbia/TriStar Superbit series. With this method of DVD presentation extras are omitted from the disc to make room for greater audio and video performance. The data is compressed less here and there is a resulting improvement in throughput. While some Superbit discs are presented as two disc sets, movie on disc one, extras on disc two, and this is a single disc issue. There are little in the way of extras. Too bad, I would have enjoyed the selection of commentary tracks provided I the ‘Fight Club’ disc. The audio is provided in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS. They are about the same in performance; both give the audience a full, complete sound field. All speakers get a chance to really shine. The video is a crisp anamorphic 2.35:1 permitting even the slightest details to be visible. The balance of color and brightness is mater quality. This is vital considering the dark scenes presented in the film. This disc is near reference quality. If you are a Fincher fan Panic Room is a must have. For others, get to know this director with an excellent presentation.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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