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Panic (2001)
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by Greg Muskewitz

"A real treasure."
5 stars

“Panic” is a difficult film to write about. It's complex, but not in the sense of looping plot-points, not because of twisty sub-plots, but because the film is most simply about human beings trying to understand themselves and understanding those who they interact with. Who hasn't had a similar difficulty somewhere throughout life? “Panic” is a quaint, unconventional, but superb film, and one that almost went unseen both in San Diego, and in any other theater in the U.S.

First, a little explaining on my part: “Panic” was independently produced and was shown at the Sundance Film Festival during the calendar of 2000. The film was greeted with out-stretched arms by critics and audiences, and was picked up to be distributed by Artisan. To just about everyone's surprise, including the cast and crew, Artisan decided to dump it onto Showtime for a month, before Roxie Releasing (I heard it is a subsidiary of Artisan) saw that they were sitting on something that should be seen on the big screen. Unfortunately, my guess is that because they were unsure of how it would fare theatrically (and I admit, although it isn't repelling, it will be hard to attract an audience), and with it being an independent release, there were not a lot of prints made up. So even though it opened a month or so ago in New York and Chicago, it is just ending up here in Sunny San Diego before hitting the video shelves.

But now, the film. And what a provocative and original one at that! William H. Macy is Alex, a middle-aged married man of one child. He's a calm, but very pensive person who looks as if his life is normal, and tries to lead it that way as much as possible. His wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman) thinks he’s a salesman, but in actuality, Alex is a hitman, following in the family business started by his father Michael (Donald Sutherland). But Alex isn’t happy (“Sometimes I wish I was dead”), yet he doesn’t quite what it is.

When he waits for his psychiatrist in the lobby, he meets Sarah (Neve Campbell), a goth-y meets glam-y bi-sexual hairdresser. Alex likes her, but doesn’t really know why either. He thinks that maybe a “fling” would be sort of rejuvenating. That maybe he would have an alternative, an additional option to expand his happiness. Sarah, who doesn’t really have the money to throw away for her shrink, does it anyway just to have someone to talk to. She’s just as confused as he is, and that means that things could work either one of two ways. One: their confusion can fuse them into an amalgamated bliss. Or two: one will end up investing too much into the other, and when one gets afraid and pulls out, it will leave the other completely abandoned. The relationship they build is hard to describe because they too have trouble deciding what it is. The big problem, though, will be when Alex confronts his father about quitting the job that is making him so far removed.

Many critics are comparing “Panic” to a noir, but even though the film itself is quite dark and moody, it comes off as more of a heavily-shaded gris. Written and directed by TV alumni Henry Bromell, he attempts and succeeds at a distant imitation of David Mamet’s rythmatic dialogue and structured speech. Some of that, in part, is due to the fact that Macy is a Mamet-staple (“Oleanna,” “State and Main,” etc.) so he knows how to expand on that as a pro. Bromell approaches his characters calmly and unbiased; Alex wouldn’t even be looked on as an anti-hero because he’s too good of a person. He’s our protagonist, plain and simple. And Bromell makes them intelligent, though obviously confused and sometimes intelligent characters. He employs Jeffry Jur’s camera very effectively, slowly sliding it and gliding it, as though we might be a psychologist following the characters in the field for research. The images are all crisp and polished, filmed with a little extra saturation that is highlighted by the black, purple and other such darker colors.

What completes “Panic” as a near-perfect formation are the actors. Macy has generally proved himself to be a strong character actor (maybe with the exception of “Happy, Texas”), but he also does very well as being believable. He falls into the latter category here, and we are empathetic with his character. The crisis that the characters face, like mid-life crises (Ullman laments, “I sounds like a middle-aged jealous housewife…[pause]…I guess I am!”), etc. are mostly all identifiable, and therefore it only seems natural that we should care. And as additional incentive, the characters, while still seeming like real characters, are also likable. They are not forced onto us, and what may be considered as odious behavior, are simply what in real life would be nuances.

Neve Campbell, probably who I would consider my favorite actress, again continues to advance her career in a smart and distinct fashion. Not one to play the same character again (unless you count Sidney Prescott from the “Scream” series, even there from each installment there is an advancement and transmogrification in her), she ably becomes another unique character. Campbell adopts a new look, a new attitude and a new personality, and with the exception of her measured and over-dramatic mannerisms (the only thing that seems repetitious from other performances), she distinguishes a noticeable variety of character. It is also her growth and maturity as an actress, in the chance she takes in her choice of films (studio versus independent), so it should come as no surprise to know that she is involved as well with other low-budget movies including “Hairshirt,” “Investigating Sex” and “Move.” Whether or not we actually get to see these, it a whole different question.

Ullman, although limited, is good for her scenes and minimal “character” attributes. Sutherland, who was looking pretty ragged in “Space Cowboy,” knocks it up a notch or so here, but when they use flashback sequences, he surprisingly cleans up and almost hits a fountain of youth. It’s almost as if it were taken from another time. Then again, they always could have used Kiefer. Lastly is David Dorfman as Sammy, Alex’s son. The kid has some talent, and he doesn’t shy away from using it here. So it came as no surprise to see Bromell using him as another precocious mouthpiece. But what was nice to see, is that even though the boy’s precocity was overdone a bit, it’s done in modicum and it is also articulated very well. Our abeyance is far more acceptable insofar as because a lot of her precocity stems from his awareness that something is wrong with his dad and his parent’s marriage. Children have a bit of a sixth sense to something like that, so where some validity points were lost because of him, it was picked right back up.

Bromell does a superb job in his cinematic debut and concedes a lot of promise for his future projects. He shows an uncanny maturity as a writer and director, and for all of the melancholy and pensive moods the film subjects and effects us with, he knows how to measure in some unexpected humor that lightens the mood in the right places, but has no detrimental effects on the film itself. An excellent, moody and haunting score by Brian Tyler. It’s too bad that it’s play for only a week at the Ken. There’s no chance of any major business.

Final Verdict: A.

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originally posted: 03/17/01 10:25:58
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User Comments

2/14/10 Mikey Mike Dull dull dull 2 stars
8/31/06 Indrid Cold Well made, surprisingly good cinematography. Story is bland and hackneyed though. 4 stars
7/11/03 malcolm (GASP) something original from hollywood! i don't believe it. sutherland was great as usual 5 stars
5/12/03 Jack Bourbon Fun but phony. 3 stars
10/05/02 ryan phillippe gets hit by a car and it rules Everyone in this was at the top of their game, an amazing script, beautifully put together. 5 stars
7/01/02 The Bomb 69 well made, loses a star for the ending 4 stars
4/11/02 dudeLab What was the ending? Does he die? Someone told me he did and that the end was just imagined 4 stars
3/02/02 Alan Smithee A great film with superb performances. Neve Campbell has never looked better. 5 stars
2/23/02 Beyonder A mature and intelligent film served by very good comedians 4 stars
12/17/01 Don Snyder Excellent: ing, A Gem, A Pleasure to Watch 5 stars
10/16/01 lukas worth a look 4 stars
10/15/01 seldom scene an American Beauty wanna be, not bad yet slightly predictable 4 stars
8/14/01 Monday Morning The ending was truly predictable, and the rest was just boring. 3 stars
7/06/01 Mike Leskow Well acted flick with an interesting plot. Ending was predictable. 4 stars
6/12/01 MJA Great characters, good writing and cinematography 4 stars
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  12-Jan-2001 (R)



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