THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It's become a cliche when a critic says of a new thriller: "it's the kind of movie Hitchcock would have made." However, Panic Room really is the kind of movie Hitchcock would have made. This film has one of the most ingenious premises I've come across in a long time. Even better, it manages to live up to the sheer awesomeness of that premise. It's the kind of picture that keeps you staring at the screen because each new scene cranks the tension up from where it was in the scene before. You don't think about looking at your watch or going to bathroom during this.

Jodie Foster stars as Meg Altman. We don't know much about her from the early scenes. Her quiet intelligence and reserved demeanor suggest someone who was an academic, maybe even a socialite. Meg and her teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) make some references to a recent divorce, and there is a passing comment about Meg's estranged husband being a well-known scholar who has now taken up with another woman. Meg and Sarah are scoping out a new place to live when they come across a large brownstone. As the realtor shows them around, Meg notices that one of the rooms seems smaller than it should be. She is correct. Behind one section of the wall is a hidden room - what used to be called a "castle keep" in medieval times. Now it is called a "panic room" and its purpose is to provide safety: four concrete walls, a phone line separate from the main line, a ventilation system all its own. There is also a large bank of surveillance monitors that cover every square inch of the house. The steel-reinforced doors slam shut in just over a second once the button is pushed. Once you're in there, no one else is getting in.

Jared Leto hunts down Jodie Foster and her daughter in the thriller Panic Room
At first, it seems a little creepy to Meg, but she's soon glad to have such a room. On their first night in the house, three intruders break in. Junior (Jared Leto) is manic and knows that a $3 million fortune is hidden in the house. Burnham (Forest Whitaker) just wants to do the job and get out; when he discovers there are people in the house (it's supposed to be empty), his face conveys a look of terror that sent a chill down my spine. Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) isn't even supposed to be there. Junior brought him along at the last minute. He wears a ski mask and carries a gun, and Burnham doesn't like him one bit. Meg soon discovers the home invaders and hustles Sarah off to the panic room. They think they're safe, but then Junior announces that the money is actually in the panic room. They aren't leaving without it.

One of my frequent complaints about thrillers is that they're illogical. The plots are often driven by unlikely coincidences and filled with characters who do stupid things. Panic Room works because it's both logical and plausible. Without giving anything away, the reason for the intruders' break-in makes sense. At first, it seems strange that three totally different men would work together. Then you find out who Burnham is and it all clicks into place. The screenplay (nicely written by David Koepp) makes it perfectly clear why the phone doesn't work, too. The bad guys try a variety of things to penetrate the impenetrable room, all of which are pretty sound ideas. The things Meg does to keep them out...well, she does what I would do in her shoes.

Of course, a movie about two people trapped in a safe room doesn't necessarily sound action-packed. One of the ways the film keeps pumping the tension up is to create reasons why Meg has to leave the room. A minor example: the interior phone doesn't work, so she can't call for help. Her cel phone, however, is in another room. If she can sneak out long enough to grab it, then maybe there's hope. Later on, other things happen that make staying in the room impossible. Koepp has done a terrific job of squeezing all the possibilities out of his premise. Ideally, the panic room is supposed to be safe, but for the characters it creates one problem after another.

Director David Fincher (who also did one of my favorite movies, Fight Club) gives the picture a stylized look that adds to the overall effect. His gliding camera work makes the house as much a character as any of the humans. Fincher also makes sure that the characters don't get lost in the action. I liked the way we only learn about Meg and Sarah by the little throwaway comments they make about themselves. It allows us to fill in the gaps. (If ever an actress could so precisely sketch a character, it would be Foster, who is as good as it gets.) And the casting of Leto, Yoakam, and especially Whitaker is perfect. These actors bring real dimension to their roles. They do not play generic bad guys.

Panic Room is like the Energizer bunny of suspense; it just keeps going and going and going. They're in the room, they're out of the room, they need back in the room, they have to get out of the room again. The whole thing winds you up like a top, then lets go in a finale that is both sensible and cathartic. What a great ride.

( 1/2 out of four)

Panic Room is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat