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Panic Room (March 28/02)

In the hands of any other director, Panic Room likely would have been a standard thriller. The plot is nothing special - a mother and daughter find themselves trapped by thieves - but with someone as skilled as David Fincher behind the camera, Panic Room becomes one of the most taut and exciting thrillers to emerge out of Hollywood in a good long while.

Jodie Foster stars as a recently divorced woman who's using her settlement money to buy a ridiculously expensive apartment in New York. Along with her daughter, the two move into a three-floor brownstone that includes a most unique amenity: A panic room. The purpose of the panic room is to shelter its inhabitants from pretty much anything - it's built out of thick steel and contains its own phone line and air supply. Obviously, Foster and daughter assume they'll have no need for this room, but on their first night in the house, a trio of thieves breaks in. After a harrowing chase, Foster and child make their way into the panic room, where they assume they'll be safe. But those pesky burglars have other plans…

On a purely visceral level, Panic Room is one of the most astounding movies to emerge since Fincher's own Fight Club. He's repeatedly stated in interviews that he wanted Panic Room to be one of the darkest (literally) movies ever made, and he wasn't kidding. Since the majority of the film takes place in one night, there is little light to be had. The scarce lighting that does exist appears in the form of candles, flashlights, etc - all natural sources that provide the film with a tremendous sense of atmosphere.

But Fincher isn't content to let the movie float by on atmosphere alone. He employs his usual bag of camera tricks, and (as is always the case with Fincher) they're never used just for showiness' sake. Early in the movie, when the trio of crooks is initially breaking into the apartment, Fincher (armed with the assistance of computer technology) glides his camera around virtually every inch of the home, through key holes and coffee pots - all in one shot. And in a similarly virtuoso sequence, Fincher references Brian DePalma's The Fury with a three-minute section that transpires entirely in slow motion. And as cool as those are, they'd be nothing if they came at the expense of the movie. But Fincher knows this, and never allows his imagination to hinder the progress of the screenplay.

And if all of that's not enough for you, the film's got a killer cast as well. Leading the pack is Jodie Foster, who most recently eschewed a chance to appear in the Silence of the Lambs sequel in favor of directing a circus movie (which never got made). She proves that she's still got what it takes, and must run the gamut of emotions - from cowering fear to kick-ass heroine. And as the three hooligans, Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam (!) are all appropriately menacing - with Whitaker a standout as the thief with a heart of gold.

Though Fincher does deserve a large portion of the credit, David Koepp is owed a fair share of the kudos. Koepp, who wrote the movie, has crafted an efficient and no-holds-barred thriller, the likes of which has been absent from theaters for quite a while (Fincher's own The Game is probably the most recent thriller that was equally effective). Koepp's also infused the screenplay with some surprisingly funny moments, along with a genuinely surprising ending.

Panic Room is easily the most involving and gripping film to be released since last year's Memento. Don't miss it.

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© David Nusair