Grafting twist after twist onto a classically simple setup, Panic Room plunges a dream home into a storm-drenched nightmare out of the grimiest pulps, dragging an unsuspecting mother (Jodie Foster) and child (Kristen Stewart) along for the ride. The latest from Seven and Fight Club director David Fincher, Panic offers a model of tightly orchestrated suspense, compressing Fincher's technical mastery into a pressure cooker of a film. As its unlikely heroine, Jodie Foster scares up deep reserves of cunning from beneath a surface that's all vulnerability. The newly divorced mother of a diabetic pre-teen (Stewart, making a deep impression in her second screen role), Foster takes over what fussy real-estate broker Ian Buchanan describes all too accurately as "a very emotional property," a three-story Manhattan behemoth of an apartment, most recently home to a sickly millionaire with a contested estate. It comes with all the amenities—six fireplaces, multiple bedrooms, a working elevator, stylish original fixtures—and one new addition, a hermetically sealed "panic room" outfitted with survival supplies, video monitors, and everything else needed to protect its wealthy inhabitants against home invasion. After only one night in their new home, Foster and Stewart realize why the room is necessary, when, as they sleep, three men (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, and Jared Leto) come looking for the millions reportedly left in the apartment. Moments later, in the first of many shifts in the balance of power, the pair realizes the downside to their home-within-a-home: The treasure is in the panic room, and their guests have no intention of leaving until they have it. From there, a true battle of wits ensues, playing out through a series of gambits and countermeasures that turn the apartment into a war zone. Like past masters of suspense from Hitchcock to Spielberg, Fincher recognizes that a working knowledge of elementary physics improves any thriller. When action erupts, it does so in moments as carefully timed as Howard Shore's ominous score, but every moment carries an unsettling believability. That believability extends to the film's real masterstroke: its ability to invest all the players with such desperation that they seem capable of almost anything. Working from a screenplay by the estimable David Koepp, a top-form cast keeps the stakes higher than even the panic-room jackpot could cover. An old-house thriller retrofitted for the 21st century without any touch of unneeded flash, Panic Room is scary enough to do for downtown living what Jaws did for beaches.
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