LEAVE ROOM IN YOUR SCHEDULE TO SEE “PANIC”

Hype is building around “Panic Room,” which is unfortunate, because it’s a very good movie.

Deceptively restrained in its environs and plot lines, the thriller simply boils down to a woman and her daughter trapped in their home with three male intruders. The distance between setup and conflict is a very short line, and the bulk of “Panic Room” takes place in the course of one night.

Director David Fincher himself called it a “popcorn movie.” We should be so lucky if all popcorn movies starred Jodie Foster and had the delicious interplay of psychological will, strategic cunning and reasonably watertight plausibility.

Foster has often been described as a cerebral actress, in the sort of begrudgingly admiring praise that hints at an emotional distance — as though the woman who’s played everyone from Becky Thatcher and Anna Leonowens to the FBI recruit who faced down two serial killers hasn’t proven throughout her career an intelligence as vibrantly emotional as it is intellectual.

As freshly divorced Meg Altman, she ably conveys the dislocation in her life, from her stumbling after her real estate agent to make an appointment and the awkward discipline applied to her smart, bitter daughter Sarah (an excellent performance by Kristen Stewart) to the constant glass of wine that accompanies her from dinner to bath to bed.

The obviously capable, elegant Altman has been thrown tremendously off-kilter. The off-balancing, we soon find out, has been done by her millionaire pharmaceutical husband, who has left his wife and 14-year-old daughter for a “B” supermodel. Her house-hunting means an end, not a beginning, and the forced move across town to the vogue-ish Upper West Side has a humiliating desperation, since it allows the man convenient access to his ruptured family.

Little wonder Altman walks through the four-story brownstone as though through a catacomb. “It’s a very emotional property,” gushes the real estate agent, who acidly reminds her client that Greenwich yards are a thing of her past. The “panic room” built by the previous millionaire owner (now deceased) inspires more claustrophobia than reassurance, with its impregnable steel walls, surveillance monitors and own supply of electricity, water and air. Fincher, though, throws in a camera that penetrates walls, floors, ceilings, even a coffee pot in video game-like technique — enough to build the unsettling sense of vulnerability.

A knee injury sidelined Nicole Kidman, who had originally signed up as the lead, but no one else but Foster could possibly have that majestic balance of resourceful strength and unwilling fragility. She’s a match for director Fincher, who excels in showing the physical expression of the psychological interior, especially when the latter bubbles over in a lunatic fury. He may have been a might too effective for some viewers with the eviscerating gore in “Seven” and the brutish irony in “Fight Club,” which diverted them from seeing how mania becomes an emotional catalyst.

The trigger comes in the form of three visitors the night the Altman women have moved in. A miscalculation of escrow closing time has Junior (Jared Leto) and Burnham (Forest Whitaker) breaking into what was supposed to be an empty house. Burnham quickly gets set up as the ironic counterpoint to the missing male Altman. Although he wants no violence, he’s a family man desperate for funds for his custody battle. Instigator Junior has invited an unexpected third: Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), whose ski mask makes him at first more amateurish than sinister, but whose gun introduces unpredictability.

The robbery goes on, prompted partly because surveillance cameras have already captured their faces (except Raoul), partly because of Junior’s insistence, and mostly because of male momentum. Another miscalculation ends up with Meg and Sarah in the panic room, exactly where the three want to go. The waiting game becomes further complicated, as Sarah is a diabetic.

The less you know about “Panic Room,” the more satisfying it is, so avoid all trailers and commercials. You might want even to avoid the next observation: Comparisons have been made to the 1967 “Wait Until Dark,” starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman beset by three criminals. After her husband is lured from their basement apartment, the three perpetuate a rather elaborate con to find a doll stuffed with drugs.

What’s fascinating aren’t the superficial similarities, but the notion of the woman left alone in the castle (the panic room evolved from medieval origins). Hepburn’s “abandonment,” while more benign, parallels her husband’s deliberate encouragement toward her independence and eventually motherhood. For Foster, her single motherhood is callously enforced. A tempting, knee-jerk interpretation of woman-vs.-man doesn’t quite apply, especially with Whitaker set up as a father pushed too far. Instead, “Panic Room” darkly comments about the ruptured home, whether from invasions from the outside or from within.

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.

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