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Panic Attack

In Jodie Foster's latest thriller, Panic Room, the only hearts that stop are on the screen; The Piano Teacher, a sadomasochistic romp, has stiff fingers.

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Panic Room looks like it was made for people who can't afford Upper West Side townhouses and want all those who can to suffer for it. Recently divorced from a pharmaceutical tycoon, Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her precocious 11-year-old, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), grab a four-story brownstone that includes, courtesy of its eccentric former owner, a sealed-off "panic room" containing enough supplies to last a month, a bank of video monitors, and a phone unconnected to the main line. In the wake of September 11, this home security add-on must have major appeal to the city's super-wealthy, but, given what happens in this movie, the market for these sanctuaries may nosedive.

On her first night in her new digs, Meg awakens to the sound of three intruders -- Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Junior (Jared Leto), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakum) -- who have inside information that millions are socked away in the panic room, and who thought the house would be empty. (They were a bit foggy on the length of escrow.) Racing like a greyhound into the chamber with her daughter, Meg quickly realizes that she's safe but trapped, and pretty soon even that safety disappears as the bad guys pump gas into the panic room's ventilation system and Sarah goes into diabetic shock. (Of course, the independent phone line in the room was not set up in time, and, inexplicably, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of food.) In the one truly tense scene in the movie, Meg leaves the room for a hair-raising scamper through her boudoir in search of her cell phone. It's a model moment of thriller filmmaking, but otherwise director David Fincher's work is singularly graceless. There's a sequence in which one of the bad guys tries to batter his way through to the panic room with a sledgehammer, and often that's what Fincher seems to be doing, too. But because he wants us to think he's serious-minded, he gives everything that trademark look of his already familiar to us from Alien 3 and Seven and The Game and Fight Club: a grody sheen that looks like designer mulch.

Fincher cares less about his actors than about the look. This is particularly true of Jared Leto, who is encouraged to mug and overact to almost Three Stooges proportions, and Dwight Yoakum, who wears a hood over his head for most of the movie; when he removes it, you wish he'd put it back on. (By the end, he resembles Alice Cooper.) After all this hyped-up hamminess, Forest Whitaker's graceful underplaying is a balm, but the damage has already been done: It's difficult to work up a strong case of the heebie-jeebies when you keep getting thrown out of the movie by all the atrocious acting.

Jodie Foster fares better. It's not a role in which she is required to be much more than affrighted for almost two hours, but she pulls her features, which were tight to begin with, into a mask of almost feral determination. As gifted as she is, Foster has always been something of an icicle in the movies (like Nicole Kidman, who was originally supposed to play the role before dropping out due to injury). She has everything it takes to be a movie star except for a romantic presence. Even the formidable intelligence she projects onscreen lacks sensuality, but given these limitations, she has at least chosen well for herself in Panic Room, since the last thing Meg needs to be is sexy-smart. Her laser-beam braininess is at the sole service of staying a step ahead of her opponents. Meg is that proverbial action-movie staple: the hunted who becomes the hunter. Foster's appearance in this movie will no doubt remind people of The Silence of the Lambs, and Fincher doesn't back off from the parallels, just as he doesn't shy away from references to Hitchcock's Rear Window. But if Hitchcock especially is the model here, then Fincher and his screenwriter, David Koepp, haven't learned much: Hitchcock, after all, was a master of nuance. His tight, logistical narratives allowed for much wiggle room. With Fincher, it's all about logistics. Maybe that's why the brownstone is far and away the strongest character in this movie, or why the camera movements and computer-generated motion-control shots are so much more compelling than the story being told.

There's one aspect of that story that is inadvertently amusing. Meg begins the film as a discarded woman -- her big-shot ex-husband (Patrick Bauchau) left her for a bimbo -- and ends up a heroine. Meantime, in a subplot, the crum-bum cad appears mid-robbery and gets beaten upon arrival into the bloodiest of pulps; for our delectation, he spends the remainder of the film propped up or sprawled out, his wounds oozing. (I can't think of a more thankless role.) It's as if the filmmakers were exacting their revenge on the guy for dumping Meg. It's gallantry, of a sort.

As Panic Room demonstrates, most violence in the movies doesn't cut to the quick and can be easily dismissed afterward, but the films of the Austrian director Michael Haneke are something else again. In the 1997 Funny Games, which is about a family terrorized and ultimately obliterated by a pair of roving thugs -- sound familiar? -- we are taken step by step into a no-exit situation of pure sadism: It's a movie about violence that is, in itself, an act of violence. In Haneke's new film, The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a stiff-backed piano instructor at a prestigious Viennese conservatory whose lust for her adoring student Walter (Benoit Magimel) exposes her deeply guarded sadomasochism. "Do I disgust you?" she asks him after he reads a long letter from her outlining her most depraved fantasies, and she could just as well be speaking for the director. Haneke doesn't really explore disgust, and he doesn't get into the emotional consequences of extreme violence, either. What he provides, instead, is the spectacle of witnessing experience freshly cauterized; you can't shake off the grisly moments in Haneke's movies because they have the shock of the real. His refusal to go much beyond that shock is part of what makes everything so creepy and sordid -- he doesn't offer a helping hand, he doesn't even try to intellectualize the depravity he's showing us. This is a roundabout way of saying, I fear, that Haneke is an exploitation filmmaker of the highest gifts. His movies are not to be entered into lightly.

Panic Room
Directed by David Fincher; starring Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker.
The Piano Teacher
Directed by Michael Haneke; starring Isabelle Huppert.


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