"It's called a panic room, a safe room; a castle keep in medieval times," the slick real estate agent tells Jodie Foster (as well as the rest of us) at the start of David Fincher's latest venture into the land of paranoiac thrills and twisted bad guys. Only the guy behind Seven and The Game could so successfully make a room designed to ease your fear into such a scary place. Because, though the panic room will keep the evils of the world out, it also keeps you in.
Jodie Foster does relatively few movies these days. Maybe one a year, maybe not. She is one of those few actors out there who realizes that she really doesn't need any more money. She does a little bit of producing and directing, but mostly she spends time with her family. The nice thing about her being so choosy, is that we can be assured that any movie she picks probably has a little something going for it. Here Foster plays out what has become an all too common real character in the last couple of decades: the divorced single mom, newly thrust into a world based on alimony and child support. Luckily, I suppose, the ex is rich and his largess allows Jodie and her teen daughter to choose a beautiful townhouse on the upper west side of New York City. While Foster is the lead actor of this film, the house is the real star. Three stories, not including a basement, huge kitchen, skylights, sweeping staircases as well as an elevator, not to mention the aforementioned security device. Which brings us to the panic room itself; reinforced concrete and steel walls and floors, separate phone line, a bank of security monitors, and swooshing NORAD-style steel door that supposedly is designed not to squash you between it and the door frame as it slams shut, locking whatever danger exists out. Fincher cleverly weaves his camera all through the house, giving the audience a real sense of being there, and, for once, a real sense of location. So often in the movies, the camera jumps around corners so fast and cuts jarringly into this room or that, that you never really have a feel for the layout of whatever you're supposed to be looking at. Not so here. Fincher, using high-end computer graphics, gives us several tracking shots that show us the house in such detail, that we even get to travel through the keyholes. You really get to know this house.
As is the case with most cool movie houses, there is some history to go along. It seems that this house's previous owner was a multi-millionaire, recently deceased, whose missing fortune is the subject of endless squabbling by his heirs; a fact clumsily revealed to us at the beginning of the movie. While the money may be missing, one source of revenue is certainly not, and the house and all curiosities therein, is sold. Foster and Co. move in right away, eager to begin their new lives. But, as fate would have it, on their first night, the two are paid a visit by a trio of unpleasant guests. Enter Forest Whittaker, Jared Leto, and the ever-more-disturbing-as-his-acting-career-continues Dwight Yoakam. The three are ostensibly burglars, but it becomes increasingly clear that they are not professionals. While their antics provide a little comic relief early on, their rapidly unraveling plan creates more and more tension until the movie feels like it's going to snap.
This is by no means a perfect movie, but it does have more pros than cons. The acting is top notch, led ably by the extremely talented Foster, as well as the eternally conflicted Whittaker. Forest Whittaker is a pretty prolific actor, and generally makes good choices as far as projects to involve himself in. He always manages to create a real presence, and while that lazy eye will probably prevent him from ever achieving leading man status, it will also give him the freedom to choose dynamic films and well constructed characters. Playing Raoul, the muscle of the gang, and building a career in a similar vein is Yoakam. Somehow, his slow, deliberate, dispassionate portrayal belies more menace than the wildman he will become ever could. It's amazing how different he can be from his cowboy hat and tight jeans country singer persona. Since he made his big splash as a seething cauldron of redneck hatred and cruelty in Billy Bob Thornton's Slingblade, Yoakam has been one to watch.
Fincher's signature creepy stamp is all over this film, but one could say that it's a little straightforward, a little mainstream for the guy who gave us Fight Club. Entertaining as it is, it's not incredibly creative or groundbreaking. For Fincher fans, this will be a little disappointing, but then again, some people hated Fight Club. So, if human-fat soap and Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box are not your cup of tea, don't panic; this new Room will be right up your alley. Grade: B+
Panic Room is rated R for language and violence.
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