Although both worlds are cushioned in wealth, the New York City that stars in Panic Room is the psychic opposite of the Manhattan in which Woody Allen’s Gotham-centric movies luxuriate. Paranoid rather than romantic, susceptible and threatened rather than hermetically self-satisfied, the city in David Fincher’s adrenalized, anxiety-juiced thriller is a jumble of agitations and urban threats without names. And we’re invited to enjoy cold sweats and sour stomachs right from the movie’s opening shots: With the camera swooping and scaling the man-made landscape of tall buildings at vertiginous angles (and with Howard Shore’s score invoking the musical language of Bernard Herrmann), we’re immediately trapped in a state of Hitchcockian high anxiety. King Kong terrorized the city from these heights. So did hijackers in airplanes, all too recently screaming their way toward New York’s tallest buildings of all.
Then the story alights closer to the ground, as Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), move into the kind of roomy Upper West Side brownstone town house graced with architectural details usually found in Nora Ephron productions. Meg is wealthy courtesy of divorce because her pharmaceutical-king husband (Patrick Bauchau) has taken up with another woman — for a certain breed of Manhattan wife, a nightmare all its own. So although Meg and Sarah certainly don’t need floor space big enough to restage The Shining, they take the place in a spirit of real estate revenge: It costs a bundle, tra-la. And among its amenities is the panic room that gives the movie its title, a supersecure, hide-from-bad-guys, high-tech biosphere in which, if necessary, the rich can barricade themselves against the presumably not-as-rich and call the cops for the help rich city people pay high taxes to retain.
Meg doesn’t expect to need the safe room so soon. Her divorced-single-mom worries, as initially established, are where to find the corkscrew for her wine bottle, where to find the headache stuff she needs after the wine, and where to store the medical gear her daughter needs to manage her diabetes. But even then, Fincher lays out the landscape of the damned: The views of the Altman girls’ new, disorienting home are seen tilted and ominous—very Klute-like. The rooms are as underfurnished and disheveled as Meg’s psychological state. And Foster herself, while in one way more beautiful and womanly than ever (she was pregnant with her second child during shooting), is nevertheless styled in a sharp-angled wardrobe and chic but uptight eyeglasses. (Newcomer Stewart, intriguingly forthright and ungirly, makes the right enterprising daughter for such a mother.)
Soon enough in Panic Room (the title divested, like Fincher’s Fight Club, of ”The”), real trouble does arrive from outside, in the form of three expert trespassers intent on retrieving something that is, to everyone’s misfortune, interred in the very shelter in which mother and daughter secrete themselves. And soon enough a pointed ode to New York City nerve-rack and survival skills dissolves into a far more average, less compelling, and sometimes just slapdash-vicious cat-and-mouse game as the intruded-upon battle intruders whose various personalities are as broad as vaudeville: Burnham (Forest Whitaker) is the intrinsically decent, John Q.-ish one; Junior (Jared Leto) twitches and shouts as the foppy hysteric; and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), the dangerous psychopath, wears a ski mask and a bad attitude.
”I don’t want any help from Joe Pesci over here,” one squabbling heister snaps at another in a sample of hip-slash-brittle dialogue from David Koepp (a Jurassic Park cowriter). ”Don’t start spouting some Elmore Leonard bulls—.” But for all the script’s self-referential pop-cultural popcorn, the skirmishes for power waged among victims and predators settle into an undistinguished rhythm of artificial suspense. Eventually, the extreme violence (a variation on the characteristic, ornately gruesome Fincher style) becomes an end in itself. It’s a thriller-flick display unrelated to the story of how one rich but vulnerable woman defends herself and her kid in the high-stakes city—the very relationship that inspired this cautionary tale in the first place. And Foster’s ferocious maternal determination to protect her daughter, most effectively displayed during an episode in which the girl falls ill, gives way to scenes of generic gonna-make-it-after-all empowerment and acts of physical strength.
It’s a pleasure, of course, to see the exemplary actress swinging a mallet and improvising a bit of emergency phone wiring with handy enterprise. But it would be even more exciting to see Foster — a star who has radiated New York street smarts ever since she walked the NYC walk as a baby hooker 26 years ago in Taxi Driver — take Manhattan, really take it, the way sometimes scary, always thrilling Manhattan needs to be taken today. C+