Panic Room

2002, Movie, R, 108 mins


A well-crafted exercise in urban paranoia that's so controlled it never achieves the reckless, visceral immediacy its subject matter demands. Newly divorced from a fabulously wealthy pharmaceutical magnate (Patrick Bauchau), Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her diabetic, tomboy daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into a spectacularly spacious townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It's even a bargain — at least by the standards of New York's superheated real estate market. The late owner's greedy family is squabbling over assets, execution of his will is hung up on some missing millions and the estate is anxious to sell. In addition, the place comes complete with a "panic room," a fortified safe harbor equipped with video monitors, a separate phone line and all the fallout-shelter conveniences: toilet, first-aid kit, blankets, electric matches and provisions. Meg can't imagine needing such a thing, but the very night she and sulky Sarah move in, three intruders — Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) — invade the house and refuse to leave, even after mother and daughter are safe inside the panic room. What the bad guys want is in the panic room, and they're not leaving without it. Though the action is largely confined to a single location and shot in the sweaty shades of sickly gray-green that director David Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji first concocted for SEVEN, the film is surprisingly kinetic: Fincher's camera is constantly panning through floors, diving into holes and entwining itself with tangles of wiring. It's intelligently scripted by David Koepp, who consistently writes the characters into a corner and then extricates them with the panache of a practiced magician; the shifting alliances between the intruders are deftly sketched. But overall, this claustrophobic thriller suffers from the one-two punch of megastar casting and contemporary mainstream spinelessness. However skillfully the twists and turns are constructed, it's hard to get really worked up about Meg and Sarah's plight because Hollywood movies don't seriously abuse kids or the A-list likes of Jodie Foster (or, for that matter, Nicole Kidman, who injured her knee on MOULIN ROGUE and bowed out of the role before shooting started). So the bad guys' rage gets vented on each other and the secondary character who has the misfortune to stumble into the third act. This same story, given the '70s exploitation treatment and starring some sleaze starlet like Susan George, could have been a real edge-of-the-seat experience. But its menace is cerebral rather than gut-wrenching, more to be admired than endured. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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