"Panic Room" is a traditional enclosed-space, real-time thriller that has been glitzed up with two additions: An actual enclosed-space - the Panic Room - that locks intruders out, that contains a separate air system, television monitors, and even water for a siege; and three conflicted intruders who spend as much time arguing with each other as they do trying to get into the room.
Jodie Foster, as Meg Altman, and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have just moved into a huge, elegant East Side brownstone that for purposes of egalitarianism, I suppose, has been moved by the filmmakers to an unlikely address on West 94th Street. The house comes complete with 'panic room,' "if God forbid anything should happen." Well, guess what: That very night three intruders do come in, looking for something valuable that Meg and Sarah don't even know exists. The three are Forest Whitaker, an otherwise-law-abiding family man who is in desperate need of money; a rich young ne'er-do-well (Jared Leto) who has organized this adventure; and the scary Dwight Yoakam as Raoul, the film's requisite sociopath.
As you can imagine, the film puts mother and daughter into the panic room and the intruders outside trying to get in. Each side tries various strategems to switch places, but as is the rule in these things the director, David Fincher ("Seven," "Fight Club"), must crank up the tension each time, adding another complication to the story. As is also the rule in these things, though, the story must be told in real time; there cannot be a time lapse unless trapped characters are sleeping or otherwise out of the picture. Here, unfortunately, Fincher has three times taken a slow fade to black at important moments, for no apparent dramatic reason. Each time, the film comes to a dead stop and must restart itself again, having lost its momentum and given the audience some breathing room. In this genre that is an unforgivable mistake.
Nevertheless there are very good elements in the film. Fincher, working from a script by David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible"), has built a four-story set, lit it with eerie night-lights, and with the help of computer magic has made his camera swirl and swoop up and down and around all those floors, in and out of rooms and even through keyholes, looking from overhead, underneath, and seemingly around corners. The panic room's TV monitors are well utilized to locate everyone.
The actors work well - young Stewart, given a clichéd role as the adolescent daughter, brings more to the part than we might have expected. Foster remains a pro, with all the right moves and lines, but her character is without any special personality that would hold us to her. Screenwriter Koepp has obviously tried to give definition to his three intruders, but they remain less than they might have been. And someone has tacked on a coda that is right out of Screenplays 101, nearly, though not quite, destroying everything that came before. What might have been an extraordinary thriller ends up as just ordinary.