Panic Room
dir. David Fincher
Opens Fri March 29
at various theaters.

Director David Fincher's last film was Fight Club, a dense visual barrage crammed with more cultural critiques and tossed-off satirical notions than half a dozen ordinary movies. Fincher's newest film, Panic Room, is just the opposite: a chic, sleek, minimalist thriller without a thought in its pretty head.

Jodie Foster stars as Meg, a recently divorced woman with a young tomboyish daughter (Kristen Stewart) who leases a capacious four-story home in Manhattan (New Yorkers will find the amount of living space downright pornographic). Attached to her bedroom is a "panic room"--a small room lined with concrete and steel to which the household can retreat if the house is invaded. Banks of video monitors allow them to watch every corner of the house from their secure nest. Meg and daughter move in; that very night a trio of thieves breaks in. When the women seal themselves in the panic room, it turns out that what the thieves are looking for is inside, and they're not leaving until they get it.

The clever and tightly orchestrated twists and turns, though not specifically predictable, never rise above thriller formulas driven by utter clichés (for example, the most redeemable thief--played by Forest Whitaker--needs money for his children, a motivation so generic the movie doesn't bother to explain the details). Without Fincher's stylish camera moves and nuanced art design, Panic Room would be tripe. But rest assured, you'll be completely held, your eyes glued to Jodie's clenched jaw and Forest's sweaty brow.

So it's almost unfair to ask: Does Panic Room have to be so empty? A panic room raises all sorts of questions about the gap between rich and poor and urban paranoia, but the movie scrupulously avoids anything resembling cultural commentary or complex human interaction. It's as if, after the contentious reception of Fight Club, Fincher wanted to retreat to a panic room of his own--technically complex, but sealed off from the world.

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