THERE'S A SCENE AT THE BRUTAL, BLOODY CLOSE OF David Fincher's Panic Room that's so terrifying it rips you out of the movie's fiction and into your own sinkhole of fear. For nearly two hours we've been following an endlessly clever variation on cat-and-mouse that's pitted a mother and daughter against three home invaders. The men — and they have to be men for this to work, for the entire setup to feel real enough to send shivers across our skin — have broken into a New York City brownstone, but instead of an empty house with hidden treasure, they've found a divorcée, Meg (Jodie Foster), home alone with her only child, 11-year-old Sarah (Kristen Stewart). Having heard the burglars, Meg and Sarah have shut themselves in a secret chamber called the “panic room,” a steel compartment stocked with food and medical supplies, and equipped with a bank of surveillance screens. For much of the movie, the men (played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and a persuasively scummy Dwight Yoakam) bang and clang against the room, first with futility, then with mounting fury. They want in, desperately, to do what invaders have always done — to plunder, perhaps to murder, to fuck with their victims' heads and perhaps their bodies. In other words, to do precisely what Fincher likes to do in his movies, his own cinematic panic rooms — to fuck with your head, to fuck with your body, as mercilessly as he can.

The movie opens soon after Meg decides to buy the sprawling house with its four stories and miles of hall. She's seen the panic room, and she's afraid of it — or of what it portends; soon before turning in for her first night in her new home, she mutters about disabling its alarm system. As for the house itself, it isn't simply impractical (it would take a fleet just to scrub the acres of floor), it's extravagantly, even self-consciously impractical, one of those yawning, cavernous spaces designed more for movie cranes and yards of dolly track than actual people. Yet if the house looks unreal, by turns a castle, a prison and a back-lot fantasia, its two new inhabitants have the human fear factor down. Age has softened the angles in Foster's face, and it's made her beauty less brittle, and less forbidding — she no longer looks as if she'd punish you for telling her how lovely she is. In the process, she's also cast off the sanctimony she's worn in too many of her grown-up roles, while losing none of her technique. Always adept at hitting emotional cues cleanly, Foster in this role also lets herself get lost in the moment, which is something she hasn't often allowed herself to do since The Silence of the Lambs.

It takes a while to get what she's doing. Much of what Foster's called on to do in Panic Room initially seems fairly routine — she plays “scared” up and down the scale — but as the story wears on, the actress seems to shed her reserve, her buffer of cool professionalism, to tap into a darker, richer characterization. And while she never grows frenzied, what she does with her performance in the film's climax is remarkable. At the moment that Meg expects the worst, Foster drains her face of horror, leaving an emptied-out, becalmed surprise that seems like wonderment, like awe, like the moment right before the sword pierces the saint. Foster turns Meg's terror into grace, a transformation that Fincher sets against blurs of red and a progression of screams so intense, so shockingly animal, they're almost unbearable. It's an extraordinary scene not because it represents the apotheosis of the director's technical virtuosity in the film — the craft remains unassailable throughout — but because it is the one moment in Panic Room we forget that virtuosity. For the first time in this well-wrought if unsurprising thriller, Fincher's potential to become one of our greatest directors bursts through the tricks, the feints and, worst of all, the scripted clichés. But by then, the movie's almost over.

FINCHER'S TALENT HAS ALWAYS BEEN OBVIOUS TO me, which is why it's always a surprise when smart critics dismiss him. His detractors tend to hold the director's sadism against him, yet it's unlikely they would (or could) if he picked better material. Fincher's films are often extremely graphic in their depictions of the sordid, unpleasant and even more revolting sides of human behavior (you don't go to his films to feel good about the world), but when it comes to the aesthetics of cruelty, he has nothing on Hitchcock. Unlike Hitchcock, however, who mined poetry and pulp from the likes of Patricia Highsmith and Cornell Woolrich, Fincher has generally worked with rotten writers, including Panic Room's David Koepp, whose robust career — from Jurassic Park to Snake Eyes — remains one of Hollywood's ongoing mysteries. It isn't as if the film's premise required brilliant invention; it is, essentially, a very elaborate variant of tag. That's fine as far as it goes, but Fincher is better than that and his script should be too. What he needed was a writer who could transcend genre, who could reach deep into the subject of home security to tell us something about our obsession with safety and surveillance, an obsession which, even before September 11, has turned homes, offices and even the country itself into panic rooms of one sort or another. The thing is, when you lock up characters in a confined space — a house, a lifeboat, a wheelchair — you need to shade in their personalities and give them the breath of life, of purpose. You also need to give them something to say other than the usual tough-guy grunts and cheap pop-culture asides. When one character tells another in the film not to give him some “Elmore Leonard bullshit,” I wanted to hurl a copy of Stick at the screen.

Maybe I should just send one to Fincher instead. Of the five features he's directed, only the screenplay for Fight Club was any good, and even that went astray. Is it the director's fault? It's impossible to say from the outside; I just wish he'd let his friend Steven Soderbergh start picking his scripts. Soderbergh isn't as naturally gifted a director as Fincher — though he's come a long way, with his last four features, toward closing the gap — but over the years he's become the sort of cannily intelligent filmmaker who can shoot his way around a script's weakness. Watching Panic Room, you realize that Fincher either doesn't know the material is bad or doesn't care, perhaps because he's too busy trying to puzzle through its logistics. There's some genuinely fun stuff in Panic Room: At one point, the camera seems to swoop into a lock mechanism as nimbly as Tinker Bell; at other times, it appears to pass through walls, as in Hitchcock's Rope. But in Fight Club, the fun stuff served the film, just as in Rope the claustrophobia of the set helped to torque the suspense. Here, by contrast, too much of the alley-oop camerawork and the digital sleight of hand seem designed to hold not just our interest, but the director's. It's as if, after being burned for Fight Club, one of the best and most maligned films of 1999, Fincher has decided there's no point in complex ideas. As the success of Seven and the failure of Fight Club proved, American audiences don't want too much intelligence illuminating the dark.

Again, there's just no denying Fincher's gifts. Give the guy a camera or two or three, millions upon millions of dollars and state-of-the-art technologies, and there's no stopping him. It's more than just money, though. Unlike a lot of directors, his love of overblown films with equally inflated effects is about pushing the limits of the medium; even on a smaller budget there would be no denying his genius for mise en scène. He simply can't take a bad shot. In the end, Panic Room isn't disappointing because the director stinks, but because his is the sort of prodigious talent contemporary Hollywood will bankroll but not nurture. Even auteurs need producers to tell them when a script sucks or a scene's gone baggy. What's surprising, then, is how much, intended or not, Fincher wrings from unexpected sources. Kristen Stewart, the girl who plays the daughter, was cast before Fincher's first choice for Meg, Nicole Kidman, left the film because of an injury. Stewart has Foster's blue eyes, blond hair and sturdy, no-nonsense beauty, and she comes across as one of those girls who has no patience for feminine rubbish. The resemblance is more than serendipitous — it's freaky. Stewart doesn't only look like Foster, she looks like Foster did when she had no patience for girly-girl rubbish either, right around the same time she became psycho-fantasy jailbait. When those two blond heads fill the frame with their dread, the image sounds a queasy, reverberant note. It's the same queasy note sounded during the opening credits, when Howard Shore's dirge-like score accompanies a series of aerial shots of a New York where the buildings are packed tightly as tombstones. Welcome to the panic room indeed.

PANIC ROOM | Directed by DAVID FINCHER | Written by DAVID KOEPP | Produced by GAVIN POLONE, JUDY HOFFLUND, KOEPP and CEAN CHAFFIN | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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