Jodie Foster swings a mean sledgehammer. And it’s a kick to have her back onscreen as a female warrior who knows how to chase demons (“Hello, Clarice”). Foster was called in at the last minute to replace an injured Nicole Kidman in the role of a mother defending her daughter against male predators while wearing tank-top sleepwear and with only one night and her own ingenuity to bring the creeps down. That’s it for plot spoilers. The first rule of Panic Room is you don’t talk about Panic Room. But attention must be paid, since this is David Fincher’s first time directing since 1999’s Fight Club, which I stand by as one of the seminal films of the last decade, despite the many megabytes of hate mail on my hard drive.
Panic Room, though it pumps out suspense with teasing, twist-a-minute glee, isn’t a cultural provocation. At least Fincher says it isn’t (“It’s supposed to be a popcorn movie — there are no great, overriding implications. It’s just about survival”). Hmm. As anyone who’s seen Fight Club or Seven or The Game or even Alien 3 knows, Fincher doesn’t do simple. Yes, the script, by David Koepp (Snake Eyes), is bare-bones basic: Foster plays Meg Altman, a recent divorcee fresh from the Connecticut ‘burbs who buys a four-story brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. That’s one way she and her eleven-year-old daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), can stick it to rich daddy Stephen (Patrick Bauchau), who dumped them to boff a supermodel. “Fuck him,” says Sarah as she and Mom morosely nibble pizza on their first night in the cavernous mansion. Meg and her daughter don’t know yet is that three burglars — Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) — have chosen to break in on this same night. It’s raining relentlessly, of course. Luckily, the brownstone comes equipped with a panic room, a concrete bunker complete with surveillance monitors, a separate phone line and a steel door that locks you in until the police show up. Unluckily, the phone doesn’t work. With a nod to Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, Fincher sticks mother and daughter in the panic room and lets them (and us) sweat it out, watching the thieves on the monitors and trying to bluff them over the room’s intercom. “Get out of my house!” shouts Meg. “Say fuck,” whispers Sarah. “Get out of my fucking house,” says Meg obediently.
The thieves aren’t fooled by the Joe Pesci act. They’ve seen the same movies, and they know how to reference Get Shorty. Early on, Sarah uses a flashlight to signal a sleeping neighbor with Morse code. “Where did you learn that?” asks Mom. “Titanic,” deadpans the daughter. You have to give points to a movie that laughs at the suspense cliches it’s lifting, even when you realize that the money the thieves want is in the panic room, and at least one of them will kill to get it.
Panic Room is Fincher’s high-style testament to the cool things movies can do to make us jump out of our seats in the dark. The director had planned to shoot the movie in pitch-darkness, but that proved impractical. Creative sparring drove off the film’s original cinematographer, Darius Khondji (Seven), leaving replacement Conrad W. Hall — son of camera master Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty) — to illuminate the brownstone set (built in California). The point is to give the illusion of characters walking around late at night with no lights on. Give or take a squint, it works. What the camera does in this movie is astonishing, gliding through walls and swooping up and down four stories (OK, computer animation helped), with Howard Shore’s score breathing hotly in pursuit. It’s a deft stunt.p>nd a stunt is all Panic Room would be if Fincher hadn’t managed to put flesh on a contrived plot. Would you believe a mystery man shows up and someone needs an insulin shot? The actors take up the slack. Leto revels in Junior’s swarm, and Yoakam, who wears a ski mask during the film’s first half, deserves credit for being even scarier when the mask comes off. Whitaker’s role is sentimentally conceived — he’s the thief with honor — but his humanism is welcome as the violence escalates. P>hings get bloodiest when mother must protect daughter — remember that sledgehammer. But Foster and Stewart — in a nuanced, no-bull turn — forge a bond that never feels cornball. Foster nails the role, giving a tight, focused performance illuminated by shards of feeling. Frantically calling her husband on a cell phone, Meg gets the model instead. “Put him on, bitch!” she says in a tone that would make Hannibal jump. There are moments — tense, terrific moments in the artful hands of Fincher, who knows how to balance cold technique with poignant subtext — when Panic Room becomes a metaphoric battle between two bruised women and the encroaching dark of despair. Not bad for a popcorn movie.