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None to be had in Finchers Panic Room

Maybe I should just send one to Fincher instead. Of the five features he's directed, only the screenplay for Fight Club was any good, and even that went astray. Is it the director's fault? It's impossible to say from the outside; I just wish he'd let his friend Steven Soderbergh start picking his scripts. Soderbergh isn't as naturally gifted a director as Fincher—though he has come a long way, with his last four features, toward closing the gap—but over the years, he has become the sort of cannily intelligent filmmaker who can shoot his way around a script's weakness. Watching Panic Room, you realize that Fincher either doesn't know the material is bad or doesn't care, perhaps because he's too busy trying to puzzle through its logistics. There's some genuinely fun stuff in Panic Room: at one point, the camera seems to swoop into a lock mechanism as nimbly as Tinker Bell; at other times, it appears to pass through walls, as in Hitchcock's Rope. But in Fight Club, the fun stuff served the film, just as in Rope the claustrophobia of the set helped to torque the suspense. Here, by contrast, too much of the alley-oop camerawork and the digital sleight of hand seem designed to hold not just our interest, but also the director's. It's as if after being burned for Fight Club, one of the best and most maligned films of 1999, Fincher has decided there's no point in complex ideas. As the success of Seven and the failure of Fight Club proved, American audiences don't want too much intelligence illuminating the dark.

Again, there's just no denying Fincher's gifts. Give the guy a camera or two or three, millions upon millions of dollars and state-of-the-art technologies, and there's no stopping him. It's more than just money, though. Unlike a lot of directors, his love of overblown films with equally inflated effects is about pushing the limits of the medium; even on a smaller budget, there would be no denying his genius for mise en scène. He simply can't take a bad shot. In the end, Panic Room isn't disappointing because the director stinks, but because his is the sort of prodigious talent contemporary Hollywood will bankroll but not nurture. Even auteurs need producers to tell them when a script sucks or a scene's gone baggy. What's surprising, then, is how much, intended or not, Fincher wrings from unexpected sources. Kristen Stewart, the girl who plays the daughter, was cast before Fincher's first choice for Meg, Nicole Kidman, left the film because of an injury. Stewart has Foster's blue eyes, blond hair and sturdy, no-nonsense beauty, and she comes across as one of those girls who has no patience for feminine rubbish. The resemblance is more than serendipitous—it's freaky. Stewart doesn't only look like Foster, but she looks like Foster did when she had no patience for girly-girl rubbish either, right around the same time she became psycho-fantasy jailbait. When those two blond heads fill the frame with their dread, the image sounds a queasy, reverberant note. It's the same queasy note sounded during the opening credits, when Howard Shore's dirge-like score accompanies a series of aerial shots of a New York in which the buildings are packed as tightly as tombstones. Welcome to the panic room indeed.

Panic Room was directed by David Fincher; written by David Koepp; produced by Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, Koepp and Cean Chaffin; and stars Jodie Foster. Now playing countywide.

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