I've always loved movies that take place over a limited amount of time in a limited space, say over the course of a few hours or one day, in a specific neighborhood or building. Movies that take place over many years tend to skimp on the everyday details that really make a story, but when a filmmaker is forced to closely examine a specific space, those small things can come to life. (This excludes, of course, movies based on plays in which characters sit in a single room and talk.) These two extremes separate the men from the boys; anyone can blunder through an epic, lining up blocks of scenes one after the other like columns of marching ants, but it takes a real talent to find poetry in the mundane. While I can't say that the new thriller P2, which takes place entirely in a parking garage on Christmas Eve, is a shining example, it still has one or two worthwhile ideas, despite its clumsy flaws.

Newcomer director Franck Khalfoun, along with his more experienced co-writer and producer Alexandre Aja (director of High Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes), makes wonderful use of the big New York City high rise with all its sinister safety precautions that eventually turn against our heroine. Angela (Rachel Nichols) is forced to work late into Christmas Eve, finishing up an important document. Late for a Christmas party at her sister's house, she heads down into the parking garage only to find that her car won't start. A friendly night watchman, Thomas (Wes Bentley), tries to help, but to no avail. She calls a cab, but finds that she can't actually exit the lobby of the building. The locks that are designed to keep people out over the holiday are actually keeping poor Angela inside.


But the movie's real catch is that Thomas is not so helpful after all. He's a lovelorn stalker who has been watching Angela on his surveillance monitors and has decided that she's the one for him. He kidnaps her, chains her to a table and invites her to join him for a candlelit, microwave Christmas dinner. Thomas has other things in store as well, but these are better left for viewers who wish to see for themselves. Of course, we've seen this type of sadistic "love" story before, going all the way back to William Wyler's The Collector (1965), and all the way up to this year's Captivity. (We could perhaps go even further back to King Kong or Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik.) It feels cruel to direct all this violence towards women, but it's helpful to remember that this genre works both ways; sometimes women kidnap men (Misery, Hard Candy) and other times entire families are kidnapped and tormented (Cape Fear, Funny Games).

P2 adds one or two new wrinkles to this old scenario, but also falls back too often on the old ones. For one thing, Bentley, with his unruly swatches of black eyebrows, plays Thomas like an ordinary guy rather than a purely evil, demented psychopath. This is doubly refreshing considering that he played it the wrong way earlier this year in Ghost Rider; if the character sneers and leers and cackles and never shows a shred of humanity, there's nothing interesting about the duality of the story. Thomas actually seems like a real guy, someone we might actually find working in a parking garage. He has decorated his little office, enjoys Elvis records, and even drives a car that suits his personality. When he rants, he seems to be coming from within his own head, rather than a desire to project the external image of a nutcase. Nichols on the other hand first caught my attention in the otherwise wretched remake of The Amityville Horror as an inappropriate babysitter, cynical and imperturbable. I wish I could have seen a bit more of that power here, but I suppose there's only so much you can do wearing handcuffs and a Marilyn Monroe dress.

On a technical level, Khalfoun does wonderful things with the four levels of the parking garage, the locked doors, the cold, the lights and the pools of darkness. (It goes without saying that there's no cell phone reception down here.) The time of year is well chosen, too. There's a kind of amplified loneliness at the holiday season that makes Angela's plight seem all the more insurmountable. (In summer, the air would have been more charged with the desire to fight back.) And to that end, the film makes disconcerting use of Christmas music, notably "Santa Baby" and "Blue Christmas," broadcast on the garage's intercom system and echoing off the empty walls.

But at the same time, Khalfoun too often relies on lazy jump-shock techniques. Thomas' dog suddenly leaps out from the shadows more than once, and Angela's first escape attempt is thwarted not so much by her own incompetence as by bad editing. By the time Khalfoun finishes lurching around the room with his camera, her significant lead time has diminished. Likewise, the script occasionally gets lazy: a bit of foreshadowing involving caller ID on the office phones is wasted. Taken altogether, Khalfoun's film is just OK. It reminded me of a lot of other films, some better and some worse, but its closest cousin is Wes Craven's Red Eye (2005), which used an even more limited space and timeframe (two seats on an airplane), and is even more highly skilled in its presentation. Perhaps next Christmas, and before the inevitable P3, Santa can bring Khalfoun a fine-tuning kit.