Director: Henry Bromell
Cast: William H. Macy, Neve Campbell, John Ritter, Donald Sutherland, Tracey Ullman, David Dorfman
MPAA Rating: (for language and elements of violence)
Running Time: 1:28
Release Date: 1/19/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
William H. Macy has the saddest eyes. He also has a great gift for making the most ordinary dialogue speak volumes about the characters he plays. He ranks very high on my list of favorite actors, right up there with Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman, and he definitely chooses the most intriguing material around. Consider his best work in films like Fargo, Boogie Nights, Pleasantville, and Magnolia. These are all great and unique filmsófilms that do not fit neatly into a specific genre. Panic is in the same tradition as those other movies, and the success of the film rests on Macyís shoulders. He and the film have succeeded admirably.
The story of Panicís release is a long one. It was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival but did not find a distributor. It was apparently lost in cinematic limbo, until Showtime picked it up for airing on their cable station. Soon after, it had a very limited release by an independent distributor. This story is evidently a common one among independent films, and I now wonder how many gems like Panic have been kept from release. What could we be missing out on?
Macy plays Alex who in the opening scenes reveals to a psychiatrist (John Ritter) that he has two jobs. He sells things, and he works for his father. What does he do for his father? "I kill people." The possibilities of this scenario are great, and writer/director Henry Bromell, in his feature film debut, knows this. A plot in this situation would only distract from the endless possibilities these characters possess, so instead we are given fully fleshed out characters who interact in interesting ways. Itís much like last yearís Wonder Boys in this sense.
In addition to Alex, we meet his wife Martha (Tracey Ullman, in a strong dramatic performance), a woman he seems to have fallen in love with named Sara (Neve Campbell), and his father Michael (Donald Sutherland). Campbell is very effective in playing Sara low key. She hints at something beneath the surface, but never lets it come out. Sutherland does the same. Michael is obviously a monster of a human being, but the way he talks in a calm manner is much more unnerving than any kind of ranting and raving. This subtlety is necessary to the success of the film. It is not about the girl or the father, it is about Alex.
Macy is perfect in this role. His Alex is a complex character, one whose full dimensions could never show themselves in under ninety minutes. What we do learn about him is seen in flashbacks which show Alexís move from a small child shooting his first squirrel to his first actual job. Macy is great at internalizing emotions which may or may not find a way out. This acting style is important to the success of Alex as a living breathing character because he never had a proper childhood. He never was given an outlet for displaying his emotions. At one point, the psychiatrist asks him, "When was the last time you were angry." Alex responds, "I donít remember. I donít think Iíve ever been angry." This is the key to understanding Alex. His father completely suppressed any emotions he may have experienced.
As a contrast to Alexís childhood, Alex is seen in many scenes as a father to his own son. This contrast is the center of the film. The movie hints at a history of this career in murder. Michael follows the tradition, and Alex is trying to break the cycle. Michael is always present, though, either physically or mentally, and to save his son, Alex must escape his own fatherís grasp.
Will Panic find an audience? It might. Those films I mentioned near the beginning did, but they had the advantage of a wide release. Perhaps it will receive recognition when it arrives on video. Even if no one sees it, it is one of the yearís best films.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.