Meg Altman and her sullen preteen daughter Sarah are ready to start fresh. Still smarting from a recent divorce (Sarah’s filthy rich dad left her mom for another woman), Meg buys a three-story New York City brownstone/town house with one distinguishing feature, a hidden, steel-reinforced, security monitor-equipped bunker called a “panic room.” Not a bad conversation piece, but hardly necessary. Or is it? Little do the women know that, on the very first night in their new home, they’ll use it in a life-and-death struggle with tenacious burglars.
It seems one of the intruders is an heir of the reclusive previous owner. In a rather extreme attempt to avoid probate and inheritance taxes, Junior hid millions of dollars in the panic room’s safe. This scurrilous black sheep is joined by two partners. One is a psycho with an itchy trigger finger (Raoul), while the other is a compassionate crook familiar with the house’s security system (Burnham). Spooked by their uninvited guests, Meg and Sarah scramble into the panic room. Now the frustrated men must lure the women back out in order to get what they came for.
A heavy rain. A cold, bare house. Desperation on all sides. An unpredictable director who’d rather shock audiences than leave them feeling good. All help to create a dark, lonely, creepy atmosphere that sets the stage for many tense moments and smatterings of violence. In this Fincher film, however, justice eventually prevails without an Oscar-winning actress swan-diving into molten metal or having her head wind up in a box.
positive elements: Meg loves Sarah very much and risks her own life to save her daughter when the girl has a diabetic seizure. Clearly carrying out his criminal duties under duress, Burnham is a gentle giant who wants to get in, retrieve the loot and get out without anyone getting hurt (“We’re trying to scare ‘em, not kill ‘em”). He hates the idea of Raoul carrying a gun. When Burnham winds up locked in the panic room with a nearly comatose Sarah, he saves her life by administering an emergency injection. Later, as the police threaten to close in, he puts Meg’s family’s safety ahead of his own escape. Meg is extremely resourceful and persistent. Although her husband abandoned the family for a younger woman, he does come to their aid upon receiving a cryptic call for help. Meg’s intense sadness and Sarah’s bitterness reveal the devastating impact of divorce.
sexual content: Junior crassly speaks of a man “banging” a woman. Meg makes a subtle reference to married people engaging in kinky sex. The camera occasionally peers down Meg’s tank top.
violent content: Burglars chase the women with intent to harm them. One brandishes a gun, which is used both to threaten and kill people. Proving that there is no honor among thieves, one shoots another in the head (blood spatters in a darkly lit scene), then puts a second bullet in him for good measure. Meg hits an assailant in the skull with a sledge hammer, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs. Raoul beats Meg’s ex-husband to a bloody pulp, pistol-whipping and kicking him mercilessly. He also threatens to cut Sarah’s throat. An attempt to flush the women out of the panic room by releasing gas into the air vent ends with an explosion and a man catching fire. The panic room door slams shut on Raoul’s hand, mangling it. In the violent, climactic struggle, Sarah jabs hypodermic needles into Raoul before the villain is finally shot in the head at close range.
crude or profane language: This film is loaded with raw language. Of the more than 60 f-words, a handful are uttered by young Sarah who actually coaches her mother on the art of using the vulgarity. There are also over a dozen s-words, some anatomical slang, misuses of Christ’s name and misogynistic references to women as “b–ches.”
drug and alcohol content: Her marriage in ruins, Meg tries to relax by downing a glass of wine with abandon. Although the contents aren’t specified, Junior offers Burnham a shot of courage that comes in a syringe. Junior smokes cigarettes.
other negative elements: In a case of “unnecessary information,” Meg sits on a toilet and we hear her urinating. Some viewers may be bothered by Sarah’s androgyny.
conclusion: Panic Room features some of the coolest, most inventive opening credits ever put to film. Artfully done. David Fincher also has a passion for studying everyday items in near-microscopic detail. Dust particles. The inside of a lock. A flashlight beam. That signature style proceeds to make the movie a tight thriller that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. But part of Panic Room’s grit lies in its unsettling excessiveness. Nonstop obscenities. Brutal violence. It’s just too much to navigate. I couldn’t help but wonder what this story might have looked like had it been made by Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1950s. More palatable for sure. And his panic room would’ve had a rear window.