High anxiety

Kristen Stewart, left, being clutched by Jodie Foster inside an undisclosed location in a Central Park town house. (NHSA alert color code: purple.)

Kristen Stewart, left, being clutched by Jodie Foster inside an undisclosed location in a Central Park town house. (NHSA alert color code: purple.)

Rated 3.0

In the new movie Panic Room, directed by David Fincher from an original script by David Koepp, Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, a woman recently separated from her husband and needing a place to live with her sullen, androgynous daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). What she finds is an incredible town house on New York’s Central Park West, the kind of thing that probably sells in the real world for about $8 million. One of its features, a holdover from the filthy-rich previous owner, is a panic room—a self-contained, concrete-reinforced closet with its own phone and power lines, its own ventilation and video surveillance monitors.

As luck always seems to have it in the movies, the room comes in handy on the very first night, when three men enter the house for what is supposed to be a simple burglary. It’s an inside job; the ringleader of the group (Jared Leto) is the son of the previous owner, another is Burnham (Forest Whitaker), the security specialist who installed the panic room in the first place. The third is a mysterious ski-masked brute named Raoul (under the mask is the face of country singer-turned-actor Dwight Yoakam). They are in the house to retrieve some cash from the panic room safe, the heir evidently being disinclined to put the money through probate. The monkey wrench in their plans is that Meg and Sarah have already moved in, bypassing a 14-day escrow during which the house was supposed to be empty. A further wrench is that, at the first sound of the invasion, the two women seal themselves in the panic room, thereby assuring that the three trespassers can’t get at what they came for.

Panic Room is a chilly film. The cinematography of Conrad Hall and Darius Khondji is colored in shades of blue and slate gray; the characters look as if their skin would be clammy to the touch, like clay. The home invaders themselves are a pretty blood-curdling lot. There’s the good-bad guy (Whitaker), who just wants to steal what they came for and not hurt anybody; the bad-bad guy (Leto), who doesn’t even level with the others about what he’s after; and the really really bad guy (Yoakam), a snarling trigger-happy psycho. The chill even extends to Meg and Sarah Altman; we sympathize because they’re the victims here, but neither of them is particularly likeable. Foster’s icy good looks actually lend themselves well to this sort of treatment—her saucer-wide eyes and thin, tight lips over those perfect clenched teeth manage to lower the room temperature even when Meg is expressing love for her daughter.

Like David Fincher’s previous films Seven and Fight Club, Panic Room is sinister and dimly lit (Fincher seems to use no light bulb brighter than about 12 watts), and it bristles with harsh suspense. The film is pitiless and efficient, and it’s certainly effective, but it isn’t really a lot of fun to watch. Alfred Hitchcock would have made something delicious and titillating out of this premise, the way he did in Rear Window and Shadow of a Doubt. Audiences used to come out of a Hitchcock movie wrung out from the tension, but smiling at the good time they’d had. Hitch knew how to tighten the screws just enough; he could make us feel like children giggling at scary stories under the blankets at night.

David Fincher is a different kind of director. After a Fincher film, we’re just as overwrought and anxious as we were at the height of the action on screen; Fincher relishes building the tension, but he forgets—or neglects, or refuses—to release us from it before he sends us home. Whatever the film, whether the ending is a downer (Seven), inconclusive (Fight Club) or ostensibly happy (The Game), the feeling for the audience filing out of the theater is the same: rattled and jittery, as if we’re trying to escape from a nightmare that won’t go away even after we wake up. Hitchcock tormented us and made us like it; Fincher torments us in many of the same ways, but he doesn’t seem to care if we enjoy it or not. In fact, I wonder if perhaps he doesn’t really prefer that we don’t.