Dan Heller's Movie Review of "Panic Room"
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Panic Room, the latest film from David Fincher, is billed as a thriller,
and while the script is intelligent and there are certainly suspenseful
scenes, the movie ultimately fails to achieve the very essence of what
makes a thriller thrilling.
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Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, a recently-divorced woman who purchased a
new home that happens to come equipped with a fortified "defense space"
or, "panic room"that is designed as a safe place to hide in the
event someone breaks in. Sure enough, on the first night, Meg and her
diabetic daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) find themselves holed up inside,
while three villains (one of whom is Forest Whitaker) break in the house
to steal a stash of loot left behind by the recently deceased previous
owner. At this point, it becomes a battle of wits between villain and
victim, each needing what the other has: the villains want into the room,
and Meg and her daughter want out. The negotiations come to a stalemate
rather quickly, and the rest of the film deteriorates into a series of
break-in attempts and failed escapes.
The problem with "Panic Room" is that it tries too hard to build
suspense for its own sake, while failing to develop characters and
their motivations. The true essence of a thriller is not just the
threat of what may happen to a victim, but the relationship between
victim and villain that raises the stakes. What's more, villains must
have a believable motive for their actions, so we feel empathy for their
desperate actions. When the stakes are high, we are satisfied; when people
rob or kill arbitrarily, well, then it's just a sophomoric horror flick.
In the beginning, we see the Meg is incredibly claustrophobic, but by the
time she's locked in the panic room, that element is dropped. The reason
she left her ex-husband is introduced and developed to a point, but none
of it is germane to the film whatsoever. Forest Whitaker's motivations
for robbing the house are implied strongly in the beginning, but the
"need" is never followed through to allow us to feel justification for
his taking such risks. Other characters suffer the same problem, leaving
us with too many promises and no follow-through. Thus, the interplay
between all the characters are equally undeveloped. And finally, while
Whitaker's character has a "change of heart" to do something "good",
the film doesn't follow through with any sort of acknowledgement by Meg
to bring closure to their unfortunate and tragic encounter.
All that said, he movie isn't entirely bad - the script is intelligent,
especially in the beginning, and the characters' profiles are developed
slowly, smartly, and with a sense of discovery. As the plot thickens, you
do feel the stakes go up, and the sense of suspense is delivered. But,
when the movie's focus moves from character development and conflict,
to just blunt and direct confrontation, promises are dropped and subplots
left unattended, leaving the film empty.
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