Cinema Signal:

. "Panic Room"

When you're rich, two things come into play. You can buy things way beyond mere essentials and, second, you need to protect yourself and your money more than average folk. Some rich people cover both these things by building a zone of safety in their homes, protection from anything, including criminal invasion. Internal fortresses, such places are called panic rooms.

The one that Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) encounters when she goes house hunting in Manhattan after a bitter divorce from a wealthy husband, is in a vacant multilevel brownstone previously owned by a very wealthy man who some considered eccentric. But there was nothing eccentric about the construction and design of this room, including as it does a separate ventilation system, phone line, surveillance monitors, safety doors of massive steel, supplies and a thing or two we're not even aware of (yet).

The room was not something that was particularly on Meg's list of requirements for herself and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), a smart-aleck with serious medical needs, but she takes the three-story pad, oversized and illogical that such a choice may be. And, on the very first night of their occupancy, as Meg knocks about in the vastness of her new digs, a trio of invaders breaks in, sending Meg and Sarah scrambling into the safe room.

While this development may seem an awful like a coincidence, it's based on a logical premise. The robbers include the contractor who built the room in the first place, Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Junior, the self-described heir of the previous owner who knows where a fortune is secreted within the house and thinks the place is still in escrow and uninhabited. It is, in other words, an inside job. And, for insurance, Junior (Jared Leto), whose personal knowledge of the multi-million dollar cache imparts to him the nominal if temporary leadership of the triad, has brought along Raoul (Dwight Yoakum), a dangerously sadistic sociopath with a gun.

The trouble with the safety of the panic room in this case is that what these men have come for is there. Panic room, indeed.

What follows is a taught game of cat and mouse, with Meg's convincing intelligence and resourceful counter-attacks matching up against the brutality and greed of the criminal trio who would seem to have the advantage of physical control of the house. That advantage changes as the riveting, nail-biting thriller plays out. What would make Meg leave the panic room? Yet she does. This is good stuff and you'd have to be numb to not feel the suspense as tides turn and turn again.

Casting is aces, starting with Jodie Foster's unmatched quality of intensity and vitality of mind and furthered by the relationship she and Kristen Stewart establish and maintain with unquestioned credibility. These are mother and daughter in extremis and there's no question about their life together and regard for each other. Foster makes us care deeply about these people and their chances of survival against relentless, armed siege.

Forest Whitaker is at peak form in conveying what we think is a decent man caught up in personal problems that wrongly force him to go down the criminal path. But it doesn't mar his essential humanity and sense of proportionality, even during the robbery, and this quality balances the ruthless villainy of Raoul. There is due regard to dimensionality here, both within the characters and between them.

In fact, Yoakum is nicely convincing as the cruel and unscrupulous Raoul to whom another dead body is mere meat that got in his way. The utter evil of this man is central to the threat against the innocents involved and to the unrelieved terror of the circumstances.

The complexity of the characters as they act out the motives that drive them is a superb creation of screenwriter David Koepp ("Stir of Echoes") and director David Fincher who, here, is far more successful with his characters and drama than he was with his uneven "The Fight Club" and the overlauded "Seven".

It's pointed out in the dialogue early in the movie that a panic room, built within the walls of a home, is the modern equivalent of an earlier age's "castle keep", the stronghold. One would expect that the protection of royalty under attack would include a tunnel under the moat for an escape to safety. In the brownstones of upper west side Manhattan, however, you don't get an easy exit. But, being trapped is what drama is all about.

Estimated cost: $50,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $95,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Jodie Foster, panicked, but not so defenseless.

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