Panic
review by Elias Savada, 12 January 2001

Wandering around the stark, suburban landscape of Panic -- melancholically stuck somewhere between The Seven-Year Itch, Affliction, and American Beauty -- is Alex, the modern amalgam of the harried, married American male. He suffers from a multiple mid-life crisis disorder, no longer attracted to his wife or the family business. "I'm in a rut," he tosses off to a stranger, eager to listen. His mild-mannered appearance, split-level home life, and the late model American sedan in the garage suggest he's, perhaps, a moderately successful insurance salesman, not a nerve-wracked double wage earner. The missus acknowledges he sells mail-order lawn ornaments and sexual aids, but she's totally in the dark about his other career, as a hit man. For dad. And mom. Yup, you read that right. And, yeah, this is one of those offbeat dramatic films that come out of left field. Oh, boy, does it ever.

"Ever get the feeling you're dead?" Alex rhetorically asks his psychologist, underscoring the depth of his depression. Director-writer Henry Bromell's dark vision of one man's attempt to take one job and shove it often transcends its literal timeline as it delves into family secrets that we are more likely to see on HBO's The Sopranos. William H. Macy further aspires to greatness (actually, I'm sure he's there already) with his sad and confused Alex, a hired gun and son of a killer-for-hire. The flustered director in David Mamet's witty State and Main, the skittish car salesman in the Coen brothers' mysteriously great Fargo, the wayward Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in the exhilarating Magnolia, Macy embellishes his current role with the obvious dejection and wry humor of a man defeated. He does it SO well. As if often the case, his nuanced contribution makes this small ensemble piece soar.

First-time feature director Henry Bromell brings more a decade or two of experience to this theatrical blue-plate special: a ton-load of stellar television producer-writer experience (Homicide: Life on the Street, Northern Exposure, I'll Fly Away, Saint Elsewhere, Chicago Hope), award-winning short stories, and a handful of unproduced scripts (dust 'em off, let's take a look!). Bromell casts a suffocating cowl over his pussy-whipped Alex, layering him in ever-darkening levels of oxygen-depleting panic. His marriage to Martha (Tracey Ullman) is sexless as he sees it, although he's eternally proud of their six-year-old son Sammy (Bounce's David Dorfman), a child in body, but wise in ways much beyond his size. Dorfman is a born natural and those question-filled bedtime moments he has with Macy ("What's infinity?", "Are You gonna die?," "Are you ok?") glow with a realism that competes with Haley Joel Osment.

Alex is a competent businessman in a like-father, like-son mold, yet he is desperately trying to break away from mom and dad (Donald Sutherland and Barbara Bain). They are introduced as quintessentially plain folk, the kind -- like a former boss I once had -- that give a great first impression, before striking back in dysfunctional anger. Especially when their grandson inadvertently tosses gift wrapping from a birthday present on their don't-you-ever-EVER-ruin-the-order-of-our-lives floor. The poor lad then has the innocent audacity to squirt glue on their dust-free furniture. Beware the ides of granny and gramps.

Alex's tormented past is bared in numerous soul-searching sessions with his therapist, the dark-suited Dr. Parks (John Ritter behind a ton of facial hair). Among these peel-away recollections, Alex remembers, as a child and then teenager, the rudimentary rules of the trade his father impressed on him. It's in the germ of those memories that Alex must come to grips with family and how it will affect the relationship he has with his counselor. Meanwhile, in the doctor's waiting room he meets twenty-three-year-old toothpick-munching hairstylist Sarah Cassidy (Neve Campbell), a troubled, seductive bisexual who attracts his extra-curricular, odd-couple attention. Their independently chaotic natures ripen a need to share some future intimacy.

I suspect the brilliant script's origins flowed from the Bromell's father's secretive career with the government ("Henry, hang up the phone, now!"), and it's fitting that the East Coast theatrical premiere of the film (the San Francisco-based distributor having already showcased it there and Sacramento) is here at (Washington) DC Visions Cinema. Aside from his family connections to the area, Bromell's long association producing Homicide, filmed up the road in Baltimore (where he wrote the script and screened the film last summer at the Maryland Film Festival), allows for Bromell to personally publicize the film and reconnoiter with family and friends from his former Fells Point neighborhood.

FYI, the film debuted at Sundance a year ago and was thereafter sold to Artisan Entertainment. You would think that after paying more than $2 million to distribute the film, Artisan would handle the film with the same aplomb that worked so well for their previous, profitable releases (Blair Witch Project, Pi). In a case of bone-headedness rare for this distributor, it instead licensed the film directly to cable (where it premiered on Cinemax last August 27th), and angered the creative talent expecting more than small screen exposure. This exceedingly dumb move was the subject of an extensive piece by Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter on June 15th where he proclaimed it "the best movie you may never see this year." Hunter is now, thankfully, half right. Roxie Releasing's Rick Norris mentioned that Bill Banning (Roxie's owner) had seen the film at Sundance and six months later watched nationally renown critic Roger Ebert proclaim it "a sharp-edged and wicked comedy." Although the small company felt it couldn't match the pick-up cost for the film after it's first festival presentation, in the aftermath of Artisan's apparent decision to no longer profile small indie efforts like Panic (apparently with a test screening before a statistically misguided audience), Roxie approached Bromell and rescued the film from theatrical oblivion. Oddly enough, it was shown in theaters last summer -- in France! American audiences now are about to discover a film that had flown below Artisan's commercial radar screen (it still controls video rights) and surely would have been an Oscar contender had it been handled correctly. Analyze this, Artisan!

As a mood piece, Panic hits its mark with dark, haunting accuracy. The score by Brian Tyler is dead on and Jeffrey Jur's deliberate camerawork extremely well defined and calculated, shaded with steely blues and shadows that deepen the film's effectiveness. Bromell hails the conquered hero with a absurdist wit and darkly delicious humor, despite a predictable conclusion (well one of them at least). As a Republican administration moves into the White House, it's fitting that a film such as Panic is playing within walking distance of George W.'s future residence. It's his party's family-values movie: guns don't kill people, parents kill people.


Click here to read Elias Savada's interview.

Written and
Directed by:

Henry Bromell

Starring:
William H. Macy
Donald Sutherland
Neve Campbell
Tracey Ullman
John Ritter
Barbara Bain
David Dorfman

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent or adult
guardian

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