directed by Henry Bromell
(Artisan, 2000)

Alex is many things to many people. He's a husband, a father, a boyfriend, an entrepreneur, the heir to the family business. That last role, however, has begun to make him a bit uncomfortable -- because the family business is murder for hire.

Alex (William H. Macy) has been trained for the job since he was a child. That becomes clear in a series of flashbacks he narrates as part of his course of therapy.

What's about to happen next becomes even clearer when Alex's father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), takes Alex's 6-year-old son, Sammy (David Dorfman), on a surprise squirrel-shooting expedition.

Complicating matters are Alex's wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), who doesn't know a thing about the family business, but knows a bad marriage when she sees one; his girlfriend, Sarah (Neve Campbell), a fellow therapy-goer; and his therapist (John Ritter), whom, Alex learns, is also slated to be his next victim.

Add all this up and you have Panic, an underappreciated thriller with a first-rate cast and a first-rate script by first-time director Henry Bromell, who's better known for his writing and producing stints on Homicide: Life on the Streets and Northern Exposure. From those shows Bromell brings an eye for detail and a quirky sense of humor that only make the unsettling nature of Panic even more unsettling.

It's a thriller with very few thrills, and almost no panic. If anything, Alex is alarmingly calm as his world crumbles around him. That's in part attributable to an amazing performance by Macy, whose very demeanor can be disturbing. He's an odd combination: half John F. Kennedy, half Elisha Cook Jr., all cool. His scenes with his son are especially unnerving, in part because they're so warm and revealing without being sentimental. Cliches have no place in Panic.

Just as good is Sutherland as the domineering father who yields only to his even more domineering wife. Sutherland plays Michael as a kind of Canadian Anthony Quinn, always on the edge of dancing -- or destroying something. Campbell, too, is effective as a full-time hairdresser and part-time lesbian who's drawn to Macy despite the difference in their ages and some pronounced negatives on his part.

But in the end, it's Bromell's script and direction that provide most of the surprises. It's always difficult to see what's going to happen next or figure out how any one character is going to respond to it. And there are moments of truly unexpected humor, as when Alex finds a pair of handcuffs between Sarah's couch cushions.

Just as tasty are the low-key cinematography, which stresses shape over color, and the editing, which establishes a deliberate pace, reinforcing the contemplative nature of Macy's and Bromell's work.

The result is a film that's more about mood than action. There are no car chases, death-defying stunts or shootouts at the OK Corral. What there is, though, is conflict, confrontation, characterization and concern coming from the most unlikely places.

Panic is that rare thriller that doesn't jump out of the screen and grab you. Rather, it sits back and lets you take it all in. And it grabs you just the same.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002

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