Tuesday, April 14, 2009
When I watch a movie, it’s because I’ve read good things about it. With Panic Room, what I read was the premise, which is simple and extremely effective. A home invasion forces a woman and her daughter into their new house’s “panic room” – a reinforced hideaway with lights, supplies, security cameras, etc. – but what the robbers want is actually inside that room.
That sums up the story. You can probably guess that a tense game of cat and mouse develops – the robbers, unable to break through three-inch-thick steel walls, try various methods to make the heroine, Meg Altman, open the door (for instance, pumping gas into the vents). For her part, Meg can’t simply wait things out in the panic room, since her daughter is diabetic and needs her glucagon shots, which are in the refrigerator.
Yes, the plot skeleton is obvious: as soon as the protagonist thinks she's solved one problem, it turns out she’s in an even worse mess. But this is a movie that relies on two things: plot and style. One of the director’s previous films is Se7en, and Panic Room has the same grim lightless atmosphere, almost too much so. A few times I found it difficult to see what was happening. But there’s a great use of little touches like what’s done with the pumping-gas-in-the-vent scene – since gas isn’t visible, a tiny feather in the vent rises and floats along.
Another great scene is the one where Meg takes advantage of the robbers’ distraction to leave the room and try to grab her cell phone. Shot in slow-motion and without sound, this scene drew the suspense out to the breaking point. Very Hitchcock.
So, what did I not like about this movie?
Cliche #1 : The Tank-topped Heroine. If you ever break into a house and are confronted by an attractive woman wearing a tank top, leave. This woman will either take you down faster than a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert or defeat you through her sheer intelligence. Probably both.
Cliché #2 : The Feisty Daughter. If the heroine has a teenage or preteen daughter, don’t just leave. Run. While praying. Even then, you’re doomed.
Cliché # 3: The Big Bad. This is the end boss in the game. He always has triple the usual number of hit points, so he takes extra long to kill and all the players need to be involved. In this case, the Big Bad is Raoul, the most villainous of the three robbers, who is 1. hit with a sledgehammer 2. knocked over a banister onto the next landing and 3. stabbed repeatedly with hypodermic needles. And he still keeps going. What a guy.
So Panic Room isn’t a film I’ll watch again and again, enjoying character interactions or trying to work out deeper layers of meaning and symbolism. But it does a good job of keeping the viewer in suspense and of being entertaining almost until the end. Not without its flaws, but not without its excellent aspects either.