‘Panic Room’ shows smarts

David Fincher’s Panic Room doesn’t really bring anything new to the suspense genre, but it does bring something that many directors of this genre have recently forgot: how to keep a viewer on the edge of their seat.

Most of today’s so-called thrillers contain the same labored and arbitrary setup, a series of implausible events leading up to a final shootout where (A) you can’t tell half of what goes on, and (B) it doesn’t matter because you know exactly what’s going to happen. Panic Room thankfully cuts through most of the lame setup, getting to the suspense earlier, and more importantly, prides itself on being a plausible and smart thriller, up until the final two scenes.

The little setup is this: Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) embark on a tour of a large brownstone in West Manhattan. This isn’t just your basic home, though, as Meg would find out when she discovers the “panic room,” a small cubicle designed to keep invaders astray, equipped with steel doors, more than a dozen security cameras and supplies that allow occupants to spend some quality time there if need be.

That night, the burglars intrude the Altman’s new home. There are three of them: Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who spent 12 years “working on rooms like this specifically to keep out people like us,” Junior (Jared Leto), the man with the information, and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), the man with the gun. We already know that this will be a smart film when, rather than the usual unconventional ways of breaking in and making noise, the burglars are careful to enter unnoticed.

The burglars hear of a $3-million treasure in the home. Problem is, the treasure is in the panic room. Meg and Sarah, who were quick to realize that there were invaders, hide in the room. But the burglars cannot get into the room and the two camps are confined to a chess game, as they try to outsmart each other.

This situation brings up a challenge for Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp. We know that the burglars are not going to kill Meg and Sarah because they wouldn’t be able to get into the room. So, how do you create pure suspense and terror when you know the heroes lives are at stake?

I won’t say much, although I will say part of the problem is solved by spending a lot of time with the burglars.

Burnham is the smartest of the three, yet the most insecure of his actions. Junior seemed to be useless after supplying the information, and Raoul is simply a wildcard. This is a film that not only creates real characters for the bad guys, but also makes us unsure of their motives– and them unsure of their own.

Fincher’s camerawork is masterful, reminding us of early Brian DePalma. This is a director (The Game, Seven, Fight Club) who always has control of his revolving camera, showing us every detail of what goes on. I’m always grateful for films that actually show us how the burglars go about their process, and Panic Room offers the best details of a robbery since last summer’s highly underrated The Score.

Everything leads to a conclusion that stays true to the setup, up until the last scene, where someone’s surprise motive creates the most implausible event in the movie.

Another obligatory shot, probably added on by the studio, is flat and unconvincing. Yet, for the rest of its 112 minutes, Panic Room is a creepy thriller that is more intelligent and technically polished than most of its counterparts. Fincher takes familiar material and puts his own touch on it, one where the audience is forced to become involved in the mystery in order to get the full impact. Panic Room is the type of film that will hopefully show Hollywood that smart thrillers can still be made.