PANIC ROOM (2002) – A thinking women’s movie

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There’s an interesting book titled Brave Dames and Wimpettes, in which novelist Susan Isaacs posits that most modern movie heroines still use old feminine wiles instead of brainpower to get what they want. Urgently recommended viewing for Ms. Isaacs would be Panic Room, one of the best thrillers of the early 2000’s.

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The movie’s heroines are Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recent divorcee, and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart, essaying one of her first movie roles at the tender age of 11). They’ve just moved into a three-story Manhattan home of the kind to be found more easily in movies than in Manhattan. The prime draw of this house is its “panic room.” In the event of a burglary or similar emergency, the resident locks himself inside this room and uses its separate phone line to call the police.

On their very first night in the house, Meg and Sarah find out just how good to be true this room is, when three unruly burglars break in. It happens that the house’s previous owner left a few million dollars behind in the house, and wouldn’t you know it, the money’s in the same panic room where Meg and Sarah lock themselves. Oh, and for good measure, Meg didn’t have a chance to get the separate phone line hooked up.

Yeah, I know, this whole set-up could happen only in the movies. But before the thrills are unleashed, the movie takes the time to set up the relationship between Meg and Sarah, and it’s nicely done. Because we get to know them for a while, we have a stake in their peril.

And believe me, these are not two women who sit around screaming and waiting for some moronically written boogie-men to kill them. Simply because the marvelous screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) allows these women to think, they manage to stay one step ahead of the burglars, who eventually find themselves cowering as much as those wimpettes Isaacs writes about.

Except for some overly swooping camera movement at the beginning, David Fincher’s direction is as perfectly taut as you could hope to find in a thriller.

As for the lead actresses — what a wealth! With her interplay with Foster and her remarkable subtlety, even in 2002 it looked as though Kristen Stewart would be…well, the next Jodie Foster.

And what is there to say about Foster? I find her one of the most beautiful women in movies, simply because she makes intelligence sexy.

Watching a seeming no-brainer like Panic Room is like expecting an ice-cream cone and getting a dinner at Four Seasons.

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