I’m not really a fan of home invasion movies, in fact I don’t think I’ve really seen any except this one. Regardless, I found Panic Room to be a pretty tense movie. I thought the characters were pretty strong, which helps induce a lot of suspense once the dangerous situations come along. While Panic Room doesn’t skyrocket to the top of Fincher’s filmography for me, it was an enjoyable film that is not a mark against him by any means.
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), is recently divorced and moving into a new apartment with her daughter, Sarah (Kristin Stewart). The film opens with them touring the apartment, with the real estate agent pointing out a special feature: a “panic room.” This is a reinforced room the family can find refuge in if there is a break in, complete with security camera monitors and a secure telephone line. Once inside, they can call the police and just wait it out until they get there. Pretty convenient, only it’s presence begs the question of necessity. Is there really a likelihood that there will be a break in? The answer is a resounding yes.
There is a break in that very same night, their first night in the apartment. Three men break into the house looking for some money that was left there by the previous owners. Burnham (Forest Whitaker) is a worker for the company that installs panic rooms, he’s in financial trouble and has the knowledge for this crime to help him get out of it. Junior (Jared Leto) is the man with the plan; he knows about the existence of the money and has people he needs to pay back as well. Junior brings in Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) at the last minute; he is more ruthless and sadistic than the rest of them. Burnham wants the money and doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, Junior wants the money but doesn’t mind anyone getting hurt (unless it happens to be him), and Raoul seems to want people to get hurt as much or more than he wants the money. The group dynamic between the three of them was at least as interesting as their interactions with Meg and Sarah.
The characters are pretty well defined; you get to know them within the first hour of the film. As the film goes on, the stakes get higher and it’s great to see the two sides bargain with, manipulate, and undermine the other side to get what they want. As each new development makes it harder for both parties, the film ratchets up the tension. It piles on slowly, then with an increasing intensity, and goes back and forth like a tennis match. Meg and Sarah both turn out to be pretty formidable adversaries, something I was glad to see. Foster usually plays pretty tough characters, and the part was actually changed in this way when Foster came on board. I was also very impressed with Stewart, who at the age of ten to eleven was able to do more in this film than her recent career would suggest.
One scene that was particularly intense was one where Fincher cuts out the sound. You can still tell everything that’s going on, but the sound is gone so it seems more eerie and tense. Meg decides to escape the panic room to find her cell phone when the housebreakers are arguing, and Sarah has to man the monitors inside the room to make sure they aren’t coming. If I remember correctly, there’s some slow motion involved as well. It’s the most memorable scene in the film because it’s so incredibly tense.
Fincher also uses some CGI shots to make it look like he’s moving the camera all over the place. It sweeps down the stairs and even through a lock when the three men are breaking in. There’s not really much significance to this outside of the fact that it reminded me of how he would move the camera (in what I suspect is also CGI only I didn’t notice at the time) through the tunnels in Alien 3. It’s just interesting to see him using a similar technique ten years later.
Panic Room is a tensely enjoyable film. The characters and the performances are pretty strong, and while there are no real character arcs to be seen here, the characters are well defined and fascinating to watch. Fincher shows us a few directorial flourishes to keep us interested. It’s not a very deep film, which is really the only thing keeping it from going up higher on his filmography. Nevertheless, it is incredibly well made and worth your time.
“I spent the last 12 years of my life building rooms like this specifically to keep out people like us.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars