Panic Room

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Panic Room is one of those films where the premise is better than the execution. That's not to say it's a bad film, certainly not, but it does suffer somewhat from a mediocre script, thin characterization and a lackluster ending.

The main problem I have with Panic Room is how dumb the three thieves are. They enter the film like The Three Stooges, immediately undermining the tension that their entrance generates. I mean, for the film to work as strongly as it could, they should be a major threat, but instead they enter the film while bickering like a bunch of numbskulls. And two of them even think they can break through concrete and three inch steel with a sledgehammer. You're dealing with mental midgets here.

Stupidest of the three is Leto's character. He doesn't know how escrow works, he puts his head against the wall when Foster is about to ignite the gas they're pumping into the panic room, he shouts at a PA system and he exposes his plan to screw over his fellow burglars simply by talking to himself. The extent of his stupidity is really too much to ask of an audience with any intelligence and his whole character smacks of lazy writing.

But thankfully Leto's character gets shot halfway through. And his killing is nicely done. It's quick, it's brutal and it allows the unhinged Raoul to step up to the plate as the main villain. And although Raoul is a knob and a bit of a rent-a-psycho, he does make for a suitably intimidating villain. And it's even more impressive considering that the actor who plays him, Dwight Yoakam, is a country music star. He may sing hick music, but he turns in a superb performance.

But although Yoakam is excellent, the film easily belongs to Foster. She's strong, she's resourceful and she's entirely believable as a mother who'll blow your head off if you mess around with her kid. After all, is there anything more dangerous than a mother backed into a corner? Personally I'd rather take on a 6-foot-4, 300-pound, bum-hungry redneck called Bubba than a 5-foot-4 woman who wants to defend her kid. The burglars should have left the second they realised they were dealing with a 'mom'.

However, while I can easily believe in Foster managing to wrestle a gun off of the psychotic Raoul (again illustrating how stupid the thieves are, Raoul at one point tells her to come out of hiding so he can shoot her and get things over. Didn't he ever have a mum?), her MacGyver routine stretches credibility – igniting the gas is fair enough, but there's one bit where she somehow hooks up the phone line. She even says, "I have no idea" when her daughter asks her what she's doing. It's obvious that Koepp (the writer) has written himself into a corner and this is the result: suddenly she's a phone expert. But I'm willing to overlook these sorts of things as Fincher gives us ample opportunity to stare at Foster's cleavage when things get silly. It was actually an excellent decision to have her spend virtually the whole film in a black vest, as you're never too far from jiggling breasts, which is fair compensation for gaps in logic.

All this shallowness has made me forget Foster's best moment, the bit when she sadistically kicks the door to torture Raoul after he gets his fingers trapped. Like I said before, don't mess with a mom. When you mess with a mom you enter a world of pain.

Back to the script problems…

The scene where the police turn up is poorly written. Not only does the main cop show far too much interest for a man in his line of work but he even asks Foster if she wants to communicate by blinking her eyes. Even movie cops shouldn't act this silly. Then there's the way that Foster's claustrophobia is disposed of. What's the point in establishing a problem if you're not going to use it?

You can even sense Fincher's disinterest in the script in his flashy direction. It's like he has to invent lots of complicated shots to keep him from getting bored. But I do have to say that visually the film is superb. There are some wonderful shots. Although I have to say that I prefer the simpler visuals. For example, I love the use of widescreen – there's one great shot when you have the lift going down on one side of the frame and Leto kicking the door on the other. And I also love Fincher's use of slow motion. The scene where Foster escapes the panic room to grab her phone is excellent, especially in the way that it builds tension by slowing everything down and removing the sound. But the flashier computer shots – the 'camera' flies into locks, torches and through chairs – smacks too much of empty grandstanding. Fincher should have worried more about the script.

But although the script is decidedly average and although in the end things get too silly – Raoul gets hit in the head with a sledgehammer and falls several floors but still survives to fight some more – I did enjoy the film. It's certainly helped by Fincher's visual sense and the amazing house (if I were a commie instead of a greedy capitalist, I'd say it was obscene to have two people live in such a huge place). Oh yeah, and of course, it's helped by Foster. She can do the strong woman thing in her sleep but she always does it well.

Directed by David Fincher
Written by David Koepp
Produced by Ceán Chaffin, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp and Gavin Polone
Original Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography by Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji
Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto

Running Time: 112 mins

Rated R for violence, language and unnecessarily flashy CGI

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