A thinking-man's women-in-jeopardy picture, "Panic Room" does about as much as humanly possible with its deliberately restricted one-setting premise. Smartly plotted, convincingly acted and brilliantly executed technically, this engrossing thriller adds some modern wrinkles to the formula of intruders threatening innocents in their home.

A thinking-man’s women-in-jeopardy picture, “Panic Room” does about as much as humanly possible with its deliberately restricted one-setting premise. Smartly plotted, convincingly acted and brilliantly executed technically, this engrossing thriller adds some clever modern wrinkles to the time-tested formula of sinister intruders threatening innocents in their home. Satisfyingly worked out so as to avoid most of the credibility-bursting contrivances, cliches and coincidences of the genre, Sony release has what it takes to attract audiences of all stripes as well as to put Jodie Foster in the commercial winner’s circle for the first time in years.

Recalling everything from “Lady in a Cage” and “Repulsion” to “Rear Window” and Edgar Allan Poe’s celebrated suffocation fantasy “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is drolly referenced, David Koepp’s chess game of a screenplay makes central use of a little-known feature of the homes of numerous wealthy people these days — “safe” rooms into which the imperiled can retreat in the event of break-ins, natural disasters or even just paranoia-triggering events. Akin to the castle keep in the Middle Ages, these sanctuaries are concrete-and-steel cocoons designed to be impenetrable by any conventional means, and sufficiently well stocked to sustain their occupants for up to a month.

Adding a nice perspective on this phenomenon is the fact that Foster’s character is a bit creeped out by the claustrophobic panic room itself. Taking over a role Nicole Kidman couldn’t continue after three weeks due to a knee injury, Foster plays Meg Altman, who’s depressed over her husband having left her for another woman but whose financial settlement obviously rivals Ivana Trump’s, given the enormous Upper West Side townhouse she takes for herselfand her sullen pubescent daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) after the bust-up.

After expending 20 minutes to set up the basics and show off the apartment in what are just the first of many virtuoso camera moves that combine sinewy cranes with audacious CG touches, director David Fincher jumps right into the meat of the drama: On the women’s first night (a very dark and rainy one, to be sure) in their new home, three men break into the premises. The elaborate security system outfitted with myriad video cameras enable Meg, who’s been tossing fitfully after drinking too much red wine, to see where the guys are and retreat in the nick of time with Sarah to the panic room, which is just off Meg’s boudoir.

But even before the two sides square off, fissures appear among the intruders that threaten to abort their mission before it begins. Burnham (Forest Whitaker), a security professional who has designed panic rooms himself, is pissed that his jumpy partner Junior (Jared Leto) has turned up with a low-life cohort, the masked Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), without warning him. Surprised as well by the presence of occupants, Burnham wants to call off the whole gig, the object of which is removing the $3 million Junior claims is hidden in the panic room, but agrees to continue with the proviso that no one gets hurt.

Once Meg and Sarah become ensconced in their bunker, Burnham realizes they will have to be lured out somehow, and he scoffs at his less rational cohorts as they pointlessly try to break in with a sledgehammer. Thus begin the cat-and-mouse maneuvers of the drama, a game in which each side enjoys a key advantage: Meg is able to follow the baddies’ movements on her monitors, while Burnham knows the panic room inside and out, far better than she does.

In the battle of nerves that ensues, the opponents take turns attempting long-shot ploys: Burnham diabolically finds a way to force gas through a duct into the panic room, which Meg even more ingeniously turns back on the attackers; Sarah discovers a hole through which she can SOS the neighbors across the courtyard, if only they will wake up and take heed; Meg leaves her cocoon briefly to retrieve her cell phone, which she must then hook up to an independent phone cable to call for help, just as Burnham realizes what she’s doing and tries to cut the line; Sarah’s blood sugar goes dangerously low, forcing another emergency run out of the room, and the hot-headed Junior quits in frustration, but not before informing that there’s a lot more money upstairs than he originally let on.

Yarn’s final third inevitably involves more direct contact, table-turning and blood-letting than what’s gone before, but it all unfolds more or less plausibly in ways that don’t forego dramatic and psychological coherence, or that produce the sort of oh-come-on snorts of derision that such fare triggers more often than not. Literally boxing the action into such a small space physically, and with so few characters, obviously limits a writer’s options, and Koepp has done a good job keeping the balance of menace and possible salvation topsy-turvy and creating two characters, Meg and Burnham, who by rights should never have been thrown into mortal combat in the first place.

Like many imperiled heroines before her, Meg has never been prepared to fight a battle to the death, and Foster fortunately keeps her real by keeping her reactions to events rational and improvisational, and by not allowing Meg to assume superwoman proportions.

Whitaker adroitly handles an even more conflicted and nuanced role, that of a morally principled working man who has mistakenly allowed himself to be suckered into a criminal act in the belief that it’s his one chance in life for a big score.

Other perfs are effective but strictly one-dimensional, including those of Leto as the hysterically unbalanced ringleader, Yoakam as the untrustworthy thug and Stewart as Meg’s withdrawn daughter. Patrick Bauchau has one of the more unenviable screen roles of recent times as Meg’s ex, who turns up in the middle of the night to help only to be pummeled incessantly for his efforts.

As expected from the supreme technician Fincher, pic has an arresting look. After abandoning the idea of shooting the film in total darkness, with only eyes and flashes of light appearing onscreen, helmer has still kept the light levels very low, delivering perhaps the darkest mainstream Hollywood feature since Gordon Willis was in his prime. Pale, ghostly images within the residence are contrasted with the very cool blue-gray in which the panic room scenes are bathed, and Fincher has maintained a stylistic consistency despite the departure of original cinematographer Darius Khondji over “creative differences” and his replacement with Conrad W. Hall, a Fincher camera crew regular and son of the great Conrad L. Hall.

Production designer Arthur Max’s four-story townhouse set is a wonder, its undecorated luxurious expanses creating an effectively forbidding atmosphere. Score by Howard Shore is of a piece with the film itself in its intelligent, understated turbulence. Opening title sequence strikingly features credited names grandly brandished, in the manner of building engravings, across impressive Manhattan cityscapes.

Panic Room

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Hofflund/Polone production of an Indelible Picture. Produced by Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp, Cean Chaffin. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay, David Koepp.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Conrad W. Hall, Darius Khondji; editors, James Haygood, Angus Wall; music, Howard Shore; production designer, Arthur Max; art directors, Keith Neely, James E. Tocci; set decorators, Jon Danniells, Garrett Lewis; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; sound (Dolby/SDDS/DTS), Willie Burton; sound designer, Ren Klyce; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Tod Haug; visual effects, Toybox; associate producer, John S. Dorsey; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; stunt coordinator, Dan Bradley; casting, Laray Mayfield. Reviewed at Beverly Connection, L.A., March 15, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Meg Altman - Jodie Foster Burnham - Forest Whitaker Raoul - Dwight Yoakam Junior - Jared Leto Sarah Altman - Kristen Stewart Lydia Lynch - Ann Magnuson Evan Kurlander - Ian Buchanan Stephen Altman - Patrick Bauchau Officer Keeney - Paul Schulze

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