Director David Fincher is a master of turning lifeless surroundings into vivacious purveyors of dread. He’s the modern film equivalent of Edgar Allen Poe: his sets drip with an atmosphere that exceeds the narrative itself in its creepy suggestiveness. In “Seven,” for example, his camera captures the dark, grainy menace of a sewer-soaked alley and the dim depression of a crowded apartment. In “Fight Club,” an abandoned house reflects the violence that mysteriously exudes from Edward Norton’s ’91 twisted pugilist.
Unfortunately, while these films possessed a vitality that matched their visual bravado, Fincher’s latest thriller, “Panic Room,” relies too heavily on its technical perfection. In the end, weakly drawn characters and a premise whose novelty wears off quickly dominate the film.
The thriller stars Jodie Foster ’85 as Meg Alton, a recently divorced mother who moves with her moody teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart) to an enormous Manhattan brownstone. Although the house appears ordinary, it possesses one unusual feature: attached to the master bedroom is a steel-encased “Panic Room,” a safe room built to protect the home’s inhabitants from dangerous intruders. Impressed by the fully stocked, state-of-the-art hideaway, the two agree to buy the house and immediately move in.
Yet little does she know that the Panic Room is not as safe as it seems. During their first night in the new home, three intruders (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakum) break in. After Meg and her daughter escape to the Panic Room and shut the door, they make a terrifying discovery: what their assaulters want is in that room, and they will not leave until they claim it.
The film that follows is a game of cat-and-mouse in the massive house, and Fincher once again takes full technical advantage of the his environment. At times, he almost drowns the viewer in his directorial expertise. The camera twists and turns, swooping through the massive halls, sliding across kitchen counters, and shooting through propane hoses.
The actual Panic Room itself is brilliantly shot as well. Fincher uses uncomfortable, otherworldly blue lighting to both sharpen the room’s high-tech metallic flair and emphasize its squeamish, claustrophobic intensity.
Throughout the film’s first half, the cinematography alone makes a gripping thrill ride. As the burglars desperately try to enter the indomitable Panic Room and Meg anxiously attempts to keep them out, the set intermingles with clever visual pyrotechnics to rivet the viewer. The wonder of this first half is the way Fincher keeps the action stagnant (revolving around one wall and two rooms) and excitingly mobile at the same time by turning the camera into a constantly active force.
Yet visual effects can only take a director so far. In the end, “Panic Room” does not have “Seven’s” clever countdown structure or “Fight Club’s” shocker finale. Not only does the final sequence suffer from plot confusions (various characters make some very odd decisions), but also the tension between characters is relatively inert compared to the tension between rooms. Foster and Stewart form an interesting mother-daughter bond, yet one can’t help but feel that any actors could play those roles. The intruders are too underdeveloped, and as a result, not scary in the slightest. Leto is whiny and idiotic to the point of being laughable, and Yoakum’s Raul, apparently meant to be the film’s enigmatic, violent loose canon, is too sloppy.
Whitaker gives the film’s most complex and interesting performance. He is a peaceful man trapped in a stirring moral dilemma. While intriguing, his “niceness” leaves the film without that terrifying combination of cunning and menace that gives any good thriller a taut, uncertain energy.
Without any effective villains, Foster just runs and looks scared. As the film leads up to its conclusion, there is an odd decrease in suspense. The premise begins to grow tiresome as the characters become less interesting. Like the rest of Fincher’s gloomy resume, “Panic Room” supplies plenty of atmospheric power, at times almost too much. By the end, it lacks sufficient substance to sustain its style.