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After seeing Panic Room this weekend, I read your paper’s review of the movie to find out how it was received critically. (The sellout crowds of the past two weeks made it clear how it was received publicly.) I found Arion Berger’s “reading” of Panic Room in the City Lights section to be sophomoric and completely ridiculous.
While Panic Room may not be a great film, or even a good film, it certainly isn’t a bad film for the reasons Berger conjures up. The crux of her opinion is based on her reading that Jodie Foster personifies “cosseted white upper-middle-class female purity while ‘ethnic’ thugs try to break down her porcelain barriers.” This is clearly a case of a reviewer fitting the film into a premise that is solely her own. There is no basis in the film to unlock such a reading. For starters, the thugs that Berger states are symbolically attacking Foster’s white purity as they break in cannot support her reading because two of the three are themselves white (Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto), and her inclusion of quotation marks around the word “ethnic” cannot dismiss this fact. Nor can it dismiss the fact that Leto is playing a scorned heir to the family money and that Forest Whitaker is playing a security specialist—hardly thugs by any standard definition of the word. Reading the panic room where Foster’s character hides as some symbol of her trying to protect her purity or chastity is also ridiculous in the literal sense, because Foster is a mother and divorcee; so then are we to conclude that she represents purity because she is white?
Apart from that, Berger also has confused some key facts: Foster is not upper-middle-class, but instead upper-class in the most extreme sense. I don’t know if Berger has priced brownstones in New York City lately, but they generally start in the seven-figure range and climb rapidly from there. On top of that, the moment when the real estate agent recognizes Foster’s name because she is the ex of a wealthy magnate serves to cast her as a member of a different and higher circle of society than the upper-middle class. Instead, she is part of that top percentile that can afford to buy such property and go back to school full time (at Columbia, not exactly the cheapest place), without having to worry about working. This movie may be an “anti-fantasy” for Foster’s character, as Berger states, but it is clearly not one being experienced by a “yuppie” but rather a member of the very wealthy class—a huge difference.
Viewed from Berger’s point of view with the above facts in mind, perhaps Panic Room is, in part, a commentary on the trend of what has become known as the Brazilification of America—that is, how the top 5 percent of the population who control 95 percent of the wealth find themselves hiding from the general populace behind private roads, electric fences, and small armies of mercenaries, only leaving the grounds if they are safely tucked behind the bulletproof glass of their German automobiles.
Then again, I could be reading into this. Maybe Panic Room is just a thriller that Berger didn’t like but couldn’t explain why without resorting to the type of generalizations usually made in undergraduate film-criticism courses.