- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

"Panic Room" sounds exploitable but proves eminently pannable. In fact, it might sustain more fascination as a trade story than a thriller.
The screenplay, contrived by the reputable David Koepp, who collaborated on "Jurassic Park" and "The Paper" and directed a domestic ghost yarn of his own, "Stir of Echoes," provoked a lucrative bidding war when introduced in Hollywood. Jodie Foster also cashed in handsomely when the original leading lady, Nicole Kidman, had to bow out because of injuries. The movie already was in production, so a replacement was needed pronto.
The filmmakers isolate Miss Foster as heroine Meg Altman and Kristen Stewart as her adolescent daughter, Sarah, in an Upper West Side town house (38 W. 94th St., to be precise) invaded in the wee hours of a dark and stormy night by three greedy burglars.
In descending order of compassion and resourcefulness: Forest Whitaker as Burnham, who was involved in renovating the residence and loathes the thought of harming occupants; Jared Leto as Junior, who was related to the late, fabulously wealthy owner and claims a grievance about the settling of the estate; and Dwight Yoakam as Raoul, a psychopath without a trace of tender feeling, concealed by a knit mask for several sequences.
It comes as a surprise to the thieves that the house is occupied. The heroine, recently divorced from a wealthy disappointment of her own (named Stephen Altman, probably not in homage to the production designer of the identical name, the son of Robert Altman), has been urged to shoot the works by a real estate agent during an establishing sequence. As far as one can tell, mother and child would have little need for the vast rattling-around room available in the four stories at their imperiled disposal.
It does come in handy for the director, Mr. Fincher, while sowing repeated pictorial confusion about which rooms are located where amid the nocturnal murk. Human interest often eludes him while he sends the camera on little voyages of affectation, tracking at floor level or whooshing into keyholes, ventilators and electrical circuits.
We're cued to anticipate the moment when Meg, alerted to the presence of intruders, grabs Sarah and heads for protection in the panic room. Darned if that isn't the very hiding place the thieves need to monopolize for an extended job of safecracking.
They get more and more desperate about intimidating Meg and Sarah out of the precious sanctuary. Meanwhile, the women must try to communicate their plight and counter attempted break-ins.
A preliminary hint that Meg might be claustrophobic is forgotten during the siege.
However, the deceptively hard-boiled Sarah, who specializes in articulating the F word in her earliest scenes (coaching her mother in its use at one crowd-pleasing juncture), is revealed to be a weak link as the ordeal continues: She's a diabetic and could go into a coma if her blood sugar drops severely.
Actually, it's the cat-and-mouse calculations on the page and behind the camera that get progressively weaker as Meg and Sarah attempt to hold on.
So much weaker that only exaggerated gore and brutality, punctuated by obscene ranting from Junior or Raoul, keep the plot on life-support for the last hour or so.
Clearly, closed-room gimmicks are prone to fizzle if you neglect to keep in reserve some diabolically clever methods of entry and escape, at least enough to service the climax and the last showdown. "Panic Room" ends up sprawled all over the place, literally and conceptually.
The filmmakers need such shocks as a vicious beating, a severed digit, a walloping blow to the face of stricken Sarah, and Miss Foster wielding a sledgehammer like John Henry to cover the film's shortcomings as an exercise in suspense or psychological tension.It's probably at its most desperate during a prolonged scene where Miss Foster is at the front door trying to deceive a conscientious policeman. He even offers her a means of confirming the presence of danger without giving herself away immediately.
Nothing about her insistence on brushing him off appeals to one's sense of the defensible or believable. It's not as if the fictional menaces still in play possess enough sinister authority to seem overwhelming threats. Miss Foster appears to be covering up for the screenwriter and director. Their blunders will never stand up to impartial scrutiny. She knows and we know it. And with cops on the scene she might not be able to go around swinging that righteous sledge.

* 1/2


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