link back to kusp front page your npr member station and picture of the monterey bay
link to the KUSP program guide link to performing arts page link to contact KUSP make a pledge to kusp
listen to our live audio stream link to our program guide link to our performing arts page link to contact kusp make a pledge to kusp
listen to our live audio stream link to our playlists link to our newsroom link to our arts section
Main | Archive | Bios | Survey | Music | Public Affairs | Staff | Translator Status | Weather 
Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Panic Room
reviewed by Carla Freccero

Panic Room, now playing at the Aptos Twin, Green Valley Cinema, Santa Cruz Cinema 9, and the Skyview Drive-In, is directed by David Fincher, who also directed Fight Club.  Just as that film was an indictment of upper-middle class masculinity, so too this one, except here Fincher-and David Koep, the screenwriter (who also wrote Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible)-foreground female heroines. Jodie Foster is Meg and Kristen Stewart is her daughter Sarah.  There's no doubt that this movie has a feminist slant:  it wants to show us tough, smart, resourceful and incredibly determined women, while simultaneously portraying the men as creeps, or as inept, mean, and weak.

With one exception. Forest Whitaker plays Bernham, a man who works for a security firm that builds rooms like the Panic Room in the gigantic Manhattan "townstone" Meg moves into after divorcing her pharmaceutical mogul husband, Steve. These three actors, Foster, Stewart and Whitaker, make the movie much more than its action/suspense/ thriller plot.  They give it psychological depth and, as characters, together hint at a story that lurks just below the surface of the plot.

Three men break in to Meg's house to rob it, thinking it empty.  One of them is the grandson and potential heir of the wealthy deceased former occupant, so he knows where the money is.  They find out that Meg and Sarah are there; Meg sees them too, through the bank of surveillance cameras set up in the safe room off the master bedroom (there's a lot in this film about watching, about cameras, about surveillance-and the camera work is absolutely masterful!) Meg and Sarah lock themselves in this claustrophobic steel fortress and the plot unfolds.

But this is also a domestic drama.  We learn, first, that the disgruntled children of the dead millionaire are fighting over his estate; Meg's husband, also wealthy, has left her for another woman.  We also learn that Bernham's participating in the heist because he's in a custody battle for his daughter.  He's not rich, he makes "safes" and "panic rooms."  So what is going on?  There's a lot in the movie about safety, security, and panic.  At one point in the movie, one of the robbers, trying to coax Meg out of the room, comes up with a plan, remarking, "Women like security."  Bernham works in security and that's why he knows how to undo it.  The room is a safe, but for Meg, who's claustrophobic, it induces panic.  And, finally, wealth-the ultimate security-turns out to be precisely what most endangers it.

Bernham is-true to one of the stereotyped roles accorded to black men in the movies-a good man in a bad situation. But Whitaker is also an actor who transcends whatever role he plays to lend it incredible depth. At the dramatic climax of this film, Meg's husband has been punished, she and her daughter are alive, and Bernham--having delayed his escape to rescue our heroine-- is caught, standing hands up, surrounded by the police.  He and Meg exchange a look across the huddled forms of the daughter and ex-husband-she on the inside, he on the outside.  Slowly, he lets loose the 22 million dollars' worth of bonds he's recovered from the house, and they fly about him in the rainy windy night. The screen fades to black. It's a moment of identification and a moment of suspense. Will Meg save him? We never learn.

This brilliant moment makes us hold our breath and gives us pause: in a just world, Meg and Bernham would be equals; in a slightly better world than this, she would be able to acknowledge his heroic role-that's the fantasy the movie makes us wish for.  But, finally, it chooses a more realistic-if less politically committed-path for its ending, concluding only with the moral its wide and privileged audience can handle, perhaps-that two people don't need quite such a big house.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002