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The `banality of evil' has long been a source of fascination for those
artists exploring the dark side of human nature. Gloomy houses filled with
vengeful spirits or twitching psychos hold less fear for the common man than
the sudden discovery that the `people next door,' the PTA member down the
street, or the social director for the local church youth group are the true
villains who surround us unnoticed, people whose very `normalcy' serves to
mask the evil within. For only when the mask is finally ripped off and we
at last get to see what we have been living next to all along do we come to
realize how very tenuous is our security and safety in this world. What
could be scarier than that?
In this category of works, `Panic' emerges as a genuinely chilling, emotionally unsettling psychological thriller, short on gratuitous violence and long on characterization and mood. Writer/director Henry Bromell has fashioned a dark, disturbing tale of a man named Alex (William H. Macy) who seeks the professional help of a therapist played by John Ritter. Alex's problem is a decidedly unique one: it seems that, since he's been a teen, he has served as hit man for his father (Donald Sutherland) whose mysterious, shady `business' apparently calls for the elimination of certain parties at the request of unknown `clients.' Alex is a seemingly good man, devoted to his wife and son, who has somehow found a way to distance himself emotionally and morally from the heinous crimes he commits. Yet, obviously, Alex has arrived at a point of moral reckoning for how else to explain his sudden need to unburden himself to this total stranger? Macy gives a brilliant performance as Alex, showing, in his totally understated reactions to the people and events around him, what it is like to be buttoned up so tight that even with all the mayhem and filial abuse he's experienced in his life he is able to truthfully say `I don't know if I've ever been angry' even at his father who got him into this life in the first place.
What makes `Panic' so unsettling is that it violates all our comforting notions about the ties that bind father to son and family members to each other. Rather than setting a fine moral example for their child, both of Alex's parents, Michael (Donald Sutherland) and Deidre (Barbara Bain), have actually groomed him to become a cold-blooded killer. Yet, life seems to go on in surface ease within the confines of not only that family but Alex's own family as well. Alex keeps the truth hidden from both his wife, Martha (Tracy Ullman) and his 6-year old son, Sammy (David Dorfman), allowing them to function almost as any other normal suburban family.
Yet, Alex has other, perhaps more mundane problems as well. He meets a somewhat disturbed 23-year old fellow patient named Sarah (Neve Campbell) to whom he feels an immediate attraction. Tentatively, these two lost souls grope towards each other, both of them hoping to find in the other that which is lacking in themselves. But in many ways, Alex is actually a man of strong moral character in certain aspects of his life and he agonizes over taking the initial step towards consummating their relationship, knowing it will harm the wife he loves but no longer feels attracted to. Bromell's sophisticated screenplay refuses to spell out every psychological detail for the audience, allowing us to make our own connections, draw our own conclusions and reach our own moral judgments. As director as well, Bromell establishes and maintains a mood of almost heartbreaking melancholy and sadness. Characters rarely speak above a hush; the camera glides slowly along taking in the scene at a leisurely, unhurried pace; and the haunting musical score heightens the strange unreality of the world which these people have come to inhabit, a world that seems to call into question everything we take for granted in the area of morality, ethics and basic common decency.
The performances from every member of the cast (right on down to little David Dorfman) are letter perfect. Each of these fine actors knows exactly the right note to hit in every scene, never cutting against the grain of understated seriousness that Bromell has established.
`Panic' is a small, underrated gem that lingers long in one's memory.
Panic is a sneaky little gem of a film - you think you have it figured out
by the first half hour only to realize, with great pleasure, that Henry
Bromell is a much better writer/director than that.
The film builds slowly, with one quietly devastating scene after another, all enacted perfectly by William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, Neve Campbell, Tracey Ullman, John Ritter, and the most remarkable child actor I've seen in a long time, David Dorfman, as Macy's son, who delivers his lines as if they're completely unscripted thoughts being created in his mind. Rich and rewarding, this film will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Why Panic never got a good theatrical release is easily seen: it's much too
smart, and audiences would have probably had a difficult time with it,
comparing it to American Beauty in its probing of a midlife crisis, and
Sopranos and Analyze This in it's study of illegal goings-on amidst family
life. Though Panic may seem to derive from unoriginal material, Brommel's
lifelike characters coupled with deft dialogue and observant direction make
the film a realistic look at the undoing of a middle aged
William H. Macy stars as Alex, a hitman who works for his father's (Sutherland) contract-killing business. He leads a double life, with his wife (Ullman) and son unaware of his real trade. In his middle-age, he becomes increasingly disgusted with what he has done all his life. Under his calm, collected facade stirs repressed resentment for his father's controlling grasp on his life. When he meets a young woman(Campbell) he feels invigored and decides it's time to quit the family business.
The fact that writer/director Henry Brommel decided to make the profession his main character was trying to break away from contract-killing is disposable. He could have easily substituted it with any undesirable profession; his characters are so well-developed and believable, scenes handled so smoothly and realisticly and dialogue written so insightfully and naturally that the focus falls on Macy's conflicted character rather than his job as a hitman. Brommel's script feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, with a definite theme of destiny running throughout.
In Alex, Macy creates a tragic, easily sympathetic character, and turns in yet another brooding, great performance, as can always be expected. Donald Sutherland is also effectively abrasive and abusive as his overbearing father, and Ullman's dramatic turn as Macy's wife is a welcome change for the comedian. Consider a scene in a bicycle shop, where her mood subtly darkens and peaks in an affecting scene of emotional confusion.
Henry Brommel's first feature, Panic is a film that is well-crafted in its sincerity. With a first-rate cast, a plausible script, terse dialogue, and nice direction, this character-study is hopefully just a taste of Brommel's aptness for creating characters that seem real.
8 out of 10
I recently caught up with this little gem of a film on cable. It took me by
surprise, even though, I should have expected it from the team involved with
Henry Bromwell directed this film with a sure hand, and it shows. One always wonders about the secret life of hit killers. One doesn't have to go too far to realize they probably are one's own neighbors, or social acquaintances, or even friends; they're no different from us, at least on the surface.
In this story, the grandfather, is a despicable character who does not hesitate in eliminating anyone for the right price. He has no scruples in teaching the ropes to his own son, and even to the grandson!
Alex, is a man living in turmoil. He knows what he has done in the past and suddenly is coming to realize the consequence of his actions. He has to see someone to help him find peace with himself. In going to Dr. Parks, he is trying to find absolution, although, he doesn't find it there. On the contrary, there is a dramatic twist when Alex learns about who is supposed to kill next.
Alex, brilliantly portrayed by William H. Macy, mesmerizes us. Not only is he a fantastic actor, but he makes us believe he is that man. One of the best things in the movie is the late John Ritter. He is equally convincing as Dr. Parks, the man who unravels the mystery.
Donald Sutherland, as the grandfather is perfect. He is a natural actor in everything he does. Neve Campbell surprised in her pivotal role of Sarah. She shows a capability and range that are incredible. Tracey Ullman is Martha, the suffering wife, and she doesn't get to do much. Also Barbara Bain, in a rare appearance, is the grandmother from hell. David Dorfman, is a delight in the film. He shows a maturity beyond his years.
A brilliant movie about family, guilt, sacrifice, betrayal, and love. Macy
is such a great actor. It was almost a shame to see him in the same scenes
with Campbell, who looks the part of a neurotic sex object but doesn't have
the chops to work with him on the level the script called for. But he's such
a good actor that he played down to her level to make the scenes work. I
highly applaud the casting of Tracey Ullman as the neglected wife. Who knew?
Sutherland is also very good. The way he moves makes his character look
taller (and even younger in some scenes). Almost everyone knew what they
Macy's portrayal of the only situation in which his character is not able to be careful is nothing short of complete mastery.
This is the kind of movie Hollywood needs to make more of. No extravagant
props, no car chases, no clever one-liners. Just people dealing with being
William Macy plays an unlikely hitman who works for his father, Donald Sutherland. Macy is the dutiful son, Sutherland is the domineering father. Son wants out of the business, father won't let him. Macy loves his own son, played beautifully by David Dorfman ("The Ring"). He also starts to fall in love with Neve Campbell, a girl he meets in the waiting room of his psychiatrist's office.
It's an interesting juxtaposition of characters and the film follows the reluctant killer as he balances his own needs with those of his family. There are many touching scenes, especially between Macy and his little boy. And as you'd expect in a film with William Macy in it, there's a bit of humor too.
Excellent job all around, actors and director. Nice to know they can still make a good film in Hollywood on a small budget.
Panic delivers the goods ten fold with Oscar caliber performances from William H Macy, Neve Campbell, and Donald Sutherland. In a movie about the choices we make and the consequences we live with. Chillingly Honest and thought provoking, Panic is easily one of the best film to come out of Hollywood in years. The impact stays with you right after you leave the theater.
"Panic" is a captivating, blurred-genre film about a brooding and conflicted middle aged hitman's reconciliation of infatuation with a younger uninhibited hairstylist, his love of wife and son, his duty to his employer/father with his own identity. Although the film has a nebulous purpose and an ambiguous ending, it is a superb production in almost all aspects. The characters' clarity and sincerity in such an improbable story may both fascinate and annoy audiences.
PANIC (2000) **1/2 William H. Macy, Neve Campbell, Tracey Ullman, Donald Sutherland, John Ritter, Barbara Bain, David Dorfman. (Dir: Henry Bromell)
Character actor William H. Macy has that certain beleagured, world-weary, kicked-dog look about him that fits like a cheap suit but all the same a perfect match for his deceptive moping demeanor. In this black comedy he plays Alex, a depressed contract killer who decides to see a therapist to come to terms with `the family business' with his overbearing father (the always underrated and subtly silky Sutherland) who taught Macy in his preadolescence the fine art of killing for a career. Unbeknownst to his adoring wife Martha (a surprisingly low-key dramatic turn by comedy superstar Ullman) and his precociously wise-beyond-his-years 6 year old Sammy (newcomer Dorfman; cute kid), Alex is seeing Dr. Parks (Ritter) on the sly and his only confidante is his mother (Bain, who seems to have been off the screen radar for some time) who seems like one shrewd cookie (after all that's how her husband got his job!) Unsure of the risk in seeing the shrink, Alex continues when he meets in the waiting room Sarah (the wonderful Campbell, in a nicely played role), a beautiful young woman, who is seeing another psychologist in the adjoining office building. He is immediately smitten by her but remains guarded the entire time, plotting for the right moment which never seems to come.
What makes matters worse is his latest offing: to kill Parks. This conflict of interest gnaws at him and only adds fuel to the fire for his desire for Sarah, who also harbors a yen for the gloomy fellow traveler. All this adds up for some sly dialogue, innuendo and ultimately a final confrontation with Alex facing his fears - his father, his `job' and Sarah over his family. Macy is in fine form with his mild-mannered family man clearly at odds with his other life and the desire he has for Campbell who also acquits herself nicely as the bluntly spoken bisexual freespirit. The film pales in comparison to the latest splinter faction of hitmen in analysis fodder (`Grosse Pointe Blank', `Analyze This' and `The Sopranos') yet it balances the fine line of comedy and tragedy particularly thanks to the cool undulating tones of Sutherland (witness his threat to his son in a bowling alley bar that goes from ice cold to sunny as he impromptu dances with a waitress). If you like your noir with a touch of comedy this is the film for you.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Spoilers ahead. Well, kind of.)
To tell you the truth, well, I expected quite a lot out of this film. Roger Ebert praised it quite a lot, giving it four stars and speaking of how it's a tragedy that it wasn't released properly. Also some TV Guide publications gave the film four stars around here -- FOUR STARS. It may not sound like much, but four stars hasn't really been thrown around for ANY 90's film -- "Pulp Fiction," "American Beauty," "Heavenly Creatures," and others, got the 3 1/2 star rating. And this film, starring one of my favorite actors (William H. Macy), got four freaking stars -- of course I'd love to catch it.
I began to get more and more disappointed as the film went on. A lot of it just felt forced, manipulative, and contrived. Cliched I could even say.
There were a few instances where the film worked -- the father and son discussions felt very real, relaxed, and right. And I especially liked the scenes between Macy and Neve Campbell.
But then you have the whole squirrel issue -- not so much with William H. Macy's case, but when we see his son participate in squirrel hunting as well. There's a case where the film goes into phony melodrama.
Actually, nearly every scene with the young kid (except the father/son discussions) really doesn't work for me.
The ending involves the son in the fullest extent. And for me it once again falls apart, because I don't know why anyone would want to give such important scenes to this kid. Like the ending, for example -- you have the loud, dramatic music against his rather phony acting.
Not every single thing fails in this film. John Ritter completely works in his role. And there are other things... but I seriously don't see what all the big deal was. It's not a great film... more mediocre than anything else.
Perhaps I have to see it again to really get it or something. But I have a strong feeling I won't want to.
**1/2 out of ****
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