A former child star and future grownup star play a mother and daughter (Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart) trapped in a panic room after their new house is invaded by burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) trying to steal the baseball player Barry Bonds. Although thinking about it they might have been saying bearer bonds.
After a startling run of mind-bending psychological thrillers in the ’90s (Se7en, The Game and Fight Club), David Fincher (in a career move comparable to Spike Lee’s Inside Man) goes surprisingly generic with this high-concept suspense flick that mostly takes place in the eponymous room like Phone Booth also from 2002. Where Joel Schumacher’s movie and Alfred Hitchcock’s pioneering genre experiments (two directors seldom mentioned in the same sentence) used the self-contained device to develop their characters while building tension, Panic Room largely neglects the former but goes hard on the latter.
Produced by Gilmore Girls’ Gavin Polone, the film’s single mother-daughter relationship is built into their new home’s conservative, paranoid architecture: a bizarrely secure, massive, empty house un(ful)filled by its physically unimposing, dejected inhabitants, whose independence is about to be tested along with the building’s security features. These characters aren’t really developed beyond giving the mother an insuppressible maternal protective instinct and the daughter diabetes, mostly to bring the weaponised potential of needles into the picture. Meanwhile the burglars have their own set of family dynamics, with Whitaker and Foster (herself a new mother, and replacing an injured Nicole Kidman) both excelling as individuals trapped by divergent social circumstances.
What’s interesting about Panic Room is the tension between Fincher’s brutalist direction and David Koepp’s workmanlike screenplay, which finds the family’s first night in a new house unluckily interrupted by bickering burglars who make Home Alone references. Fincher makes the cracked seem airtight, successfully plugging plot holes with sheer panic-inducing attack. His seamless integration of CGI enables impossible shots through walls and floors, allowing the camera to drill down into the very circuitry of the house. He anticipates every conceivable (and inconceivable) contingency presented by the simple premise, each scene moving like an insulin shot and humming in dark electric blue.
Tapping into post-9/11 security concerns at the time and lockdown anxieties now, Panic Room is a technically excellent genre exercise where paranoid claustrophobia Fosters and characters barely Koepp.