The Panic Room (2002)

220px-Panic_Room_posterDirected by: David Fincher

Written by: David Koepp

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is recently divorced from her husband, who is living with another woman. Deeply wounded and angry, she purchases a spacious, costly Manhattan home with his money. The house includes a steel-encased panic room, installed by the wealthy, paranoid previous owner.

Meg finds the panic room a bit unsettling. “Ever read any Poe?” she quips. And we soon realize she suffers from claustrophobia.

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Meg moves into the house with her spirited adolescent daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). On the first night, their new home is invaded by three burglars:  Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Junior (Jared Leto), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). Meg and Sarah take refuge in the panic room. But their troubles are just beginning. The burglars are after something in the room where the frightened mother and daughter are hiding, and they are determined to flush them out.

This film is suspenseful, engrossing, and beautifully made. Various elements, including the cinematography and the shifting dynamics among the characters, elevate it from a typical thriller.

The cinematography helps create a suspenseful mood.  Early in the movie, the house is shot at unusual angles. We look up through the skylight, slide right above the floor and counters, drift under a wine glass resting on the floor, and go through a keyhole. It creates an uneasy mood — we feel that just about anything might happen. We also get an unsettling sense of the enormous house dwarfing the two people inside it. This contrasts sharply with the disturbing feeling of claustrophobia when they are trapped in the panic room.

jared leto panic room

The performances, especially by Jodie Foster, are also terrific. In one scene, Meg is getting ready for bed. Jodie Foster is powerfully convincing in her raw pain and grief over the divorce. She suppresses it until Sarah is in bed, finally breaking down when she is alone in the bathroom. From a mother’s perspective, this is incredibly authentic. Later, Foster continues to deliver a magnificent performance with her escalating panic when cloistered with her diabetic daughter, fighting the invaders. She periodically forces herself to be calm for Sarah’s sake, but we can’t help riding the roller coaster of her emotions.

I was also intrigued by the shifting dynamics among characters. The three burglars quickly find themselves at cross-purposes and in conflict. Which of them has the upper hand? This keeps changing, making the characters more interesting and the outcome increasingly unpredictable.

Similarly the dynamics between Meg and Sarah shift while they are in the panic room. At times, the mom is clearly in charge, thinking for both of them. But sometimes it’s the other way around.

This suspenseful, artfully made film is entertaining and kept me guessing. It also raised my opinion of Kristen Stewart, who later got a bad rap for her part in the Twilight franchise. In this early role, her talent shines.

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