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Taut script, terrific performances highlight film

Review: 'Panic Room' is home to genuine thrills

By Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "Panic Room," starring the indomitable Jodie Foster, is a true nail-biter of a thriller. Not since "Wait Until Dark" (1967), "The Lady In A Cage" (1964) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) has a movie captured a murderous game of cat-and-mouse with this much directorial command and heart-stopping success.

Director David Fincher ("Seven," 1995; "Fight Club," 1999) is a genius at building dramatic tension, with subtle foreshadowing that lets the viewer slowly put the pieces together while being drawn deeper and deeper into his claustrophobic and terrifying world.

Foster plays Meg Altman, a woman who has been dumped by her older and very rich husband. Meg and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) leave the upper-crust confines of Greenwich, Connecticut, and migrate to Manhattan's Upper West Side, where they buy a huge brownstone.

Previously owned by an eccentric and paranoid millionaire who has recently died, the brownstone has one very unique feature: a "panic room" -- a room with its own phone and ventilation system; a room with TV monitors that can show every square inch of the four-story house; a room with impregnable steel walls and door.

Best-laid plans

All about Jodie Foster 
Review: 'Panic Room' 

Meg is not impressed with the room, and finds it a bit creepy, but nevertheless -- under pressure from a high-powered New York real-estate agent -- she buys the multimillion-dollar home. As the agent says, with her upcoming divorce settlement, she can afford it.

Of course, with the inevitability of the sun rising and setting, Meg and her daughter come under attack. On their first night in this gigantic house, three men break into the place. They are mild-mannered Burnham, played by Forest Whitaker (who has had "Battleship Earth" taken off his studio press information); Dwight Yoakam as loose cannon Raoul; and Jared Leto (1999's "Fight Club" and 2000's "Requiem for a Dream") as high-strung Junior.

The trio are amazed to find the house occupied -- that wasn't part of their plan. But motivated by greed, they press ahead with their carefully conceived robbery. Apparently, millions of dollars are hidden in the house.

The rest of the film is a battle between Meg, who with Sarah takes refuge in the panic room, and the three criminals, who seek to draw them out -- each in his own way.

The heart of the action

Screenwriter and co-producer David Koepp has crafted an excellent script brimming with psychological twists and turns. There are also beautifully sketched subplots. Character development is revealed slowly and believably. And all the while, Koepp is weaving a web of terror that's pulled tighter and tighter as the film nears its conclusion.

Cinematographers Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji have created the illusion of a large airy townhouse, and then turned it into a high-security tomb that gets smaller and darker with each frame of film. Created on a sound stage in Los Angeles, the set by Arthur Max allows for tracking shots, tilts and zooms which take the viewer into the heart of the action -- and the core of the primal terror.

Foster, a two-time Academy Award winner, took this role 10 weeks into production when Nicole Kidman had to bow out because of injuries suffered while making of "Moulin Rouge." Foster grabs the part with trademark intensity. She and Stewart make a compelling team. (Stewart even resembles Foster when the older actress was that age -- Stewart turns 12 in April.) This is Foster's best dramatic work since "The Silence of the Lambs."

"Panic Room" is a classy, intelligent thriller for grownups. It plugs into our fears about personal security -- fears which, in this day and age, seem only too natural.

"Panic Room" opens nationwide on Friday, and is rated R.


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