Jesus Christ, that's the whole damn point is to shoot the damn squirrel!
Panic is the debut film from writer/director Henry Bromell ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "Northern Exposure") and it easily stands as one of last year's best movies. Equal parts film noir, black comedy and Greek tragedy; Panic comes to DVD in fine style from the most schizophrenic of companies, Artisan.
Facts of the Case
Sometimes having it all is just not enough to keep a person happy. Alex (William H. Macy, Happy, Texas, Magnolia) would seem to be living the American dream. Alex owns a beautiful house in the suburbs that cradles the dreams of a loving son named Sammy (David Dorfman, Bounce), while also housing the love of his wife Martha (Tracy Ullman, Small Time Crooks, Bullets Over Broadway). Alex's parents, Michael and Deirdre (Donald Sutherland, Space Cowboys and Barbara Bain, Bel Air), look to their son with pride because he taken the family business and made it even more successful.
Still, demons within Alex drive him to the care of analyst Josh Parks (John Ritter, Sling Blade) and into the arms of a beautiful hair stylist named Sarah (Neve Campbell, Wild Things). Alex's problems run deep and rule his life. Hidden from the view of wife and child is the true nature of the family business started by Alex's father. It is a business that involves death and murder. Alex is a hitman for hire, and entering his '40s, Alex has begun to question everything about his life.
Knowing that his life is entering unknown territory, Alex is beginning a downward spiral that will affect all those near and dear to him. It is a spiral that only has one clear goal—give his son the chance for the life Alex was never able to experience. But like every choice, the question is asked: at what cost?
I said in my review of You Can Count On Me that when I discover a movie like that one or in this case, Panic, I remember what it is about this job that I love so much. Well, here I sit smitten once more. Like other smaller films such as The Limey or Felicia's Journey, Panic is one of those "little" movies that packs a huge wallop and lingers in the memory long after it is viewed. It is a deep, complex, chilling and highly entertaining film that exposes evil in the most mundane of places: suburbia.
Panic is the debut film from veteran television writer/producer Henry Bromell, and his is a name worth hunting for in the future. Bromell writes dialogue that crackles with intensity, economy, and wit. He constructs short scenes that are taut with tension, longer scenes that breathe with hope, and flashbacks that cut to the core of all his characters and expose the truth of their lives. This insightful writing is complemented by direction that has a levelheaded terseness to it, that always keeps the film centered, and propels it forward to its inevitable climax. It's an impressive first film that gains power with each viewing.
To borrow a baseball metaphor; if Bromell sets the table by loading the bases, then William H. Macy drives everything home. Macy is able to make Alex a living, breathing person whose troubles, pains and joys are clearly visible through his demeanor and his eyes. It is a careful performance that is completely sympathetic, yet never appears contrived or calculated. There is a darkness to Alex that comes from a lifetime of death and lying, yet there is also a hopefulness that is nowhere more evident then in the beautiful scenes with his young son. It is in these scenes that Macy allows Alex to become a complete man, and in the process sets up Alex's actions for the movie's climax. Unable to free himself from the control of his father, Macy's Alex is a man on the brink of a total meltdown that will carry him to the office of someone he can talk to and into the arms of a girl who can make him feel alive, possibly for the first time in his life. Macy allows us to see the goodness inside of Alex; which makes the scenes of him at work all the more chilling. There is nothing graphic or over-the-top about Macy's work; instead his performance simply exists.
Going into Panic, I knew that I could expect quality work from the accomplished cast Bromell had assembled, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of Neve Campbell's portrayal of Sarah. Simplicity is once more the word that comes to mind. There is serenity within her performance that makes the insanity of her youth all the more truthful. As Sarah, Campbell proves there is metal and steel beyond her beauty, and it is easy to see what Macy's Alex becomes so attracted to. It's a graceful and multilayered performance that carries so much more weight than the usual Hollywood cliché of "hot young thing" and older man.
As mentioned, the supporting cast is top notch with surprises across the board. John Ritter turns is a wonderful performance as Alex's analyst, while Tracy Ullman pushes her performing envelope as Alex's wife who is desperate to hang on to her happy life. David Dorfman is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time as Sammy, Alex's reason for living. Not to beat a dead horse, but once more Bromell shows his gifts with actors in the way he handles the young actor. Long the bane of most films with children in a featured role is the coy way kids are presented. Not here. Sammy is a smart and loving child, but it's never a performance that becomes sickly sweet or tugs at the viewer's heartstrings too heavily. To quote the fairy tale, "It's just right."
There have been several mentions here of the word "evil." No where is that evil more centered than in the work of Donald Sutherland and Barbara Bain as Alex's parents. To Bromell's credit, he takes the American dream of owning a pretty house in the suburbs, running a successful business that can be passed onto generation after generation, and puts a twisted spin on it. Certainly this is stuff we have seen in countless "mob" movies like The Godfather, but Bromell's angle is smaller, more intimate, and in the end, just as chilling. Macy's Alex is the son who has been trained from the crib to kill. It is only the birth and the innocence of his own son that causes him to see how wrong his entire life has been. It's almost as if Bromell used the song "Once In A Lifetime" from the Talking Heads and the lyric which asked the question; "How did I get here?" in regard to Alex and his life. The answer to that question rests squarely on the shoulders of the one who brought Alex into the world. A lesser film would be content to present Michael and Deirdre as one-dimensional villains, but once more Bromell goes deeper than that. In the hands of Sutherland and Bain there is pride and ego, yet there is also an old-fashioned American work ethic clearly at play, but most chilling of all, there is a cold disconnect with society and what is allowed that rings so very true. Together Alex's parents have found their niche, and in the name of business have spent a lifetime brainwashing their own son to believe the things they do are not only right, but necessary. Watching Sutherland as Michael you know that nothing will stand in the way of their business going forward, not even the doubts and fears of their own son. It all looks so simple, but like the direction of the film, there is an economy to Sutherland and Bain's work, that while simple; quickly works its way under the skin. The two actors offer up good-natured smiles that often seem to mask the fear and the emptiness so many people in the middle class feel. These are smiles that are as false as the lives they have led. Sutherland and Bain both give magnificent performances that seem to make a desperate and unspoken statement: "Our time here mattered!" It's powerful stuff from a movie that carries with it a great many unexpected pleasures.
While Artisan may have not promoted this film as well in the theaters as they could have; on DVD they deliver the goods. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Panic maintains the films original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It's a dark film in both content and in look with the transfer conveying Jeffrey Jur's cinematography quite well for home video consumption. Darks are solid; while the movies numerous shadows possess great detail and richness. Flesh tones are accurate and colors overall have a natural quality to them that is both pleasing and natural.
Sound-wise, we are in dialogue driven territory, so the disc's Dolby Surround 2.0 mix is no great disappointment. The sparseness of Bromell's words, along with the evocative music of Brian Tyler is well mixed and clearly heard. Nothing spectacular to be sure, yet I'm sure this is an accurate example what Panic sounded like in the eleven theaters it probably played in.
On the special content side, once more Artisan delivers a nice package. There is a deleted scenes section that has five bits that were left on the cutting room floor. The scenes are of varying length, and while every one of them has some degree of merit, it's pretty clear why they were cut. Still, it's a valuable inclusion as I always think its nice to see where a director's head was at and what choices were made.
Next up is a screen specific commentary track from writer/director Henry Bromell. There are some valuable nuggets to be gotten from this audio track, but to be honest they are few and far between. There are several gaps in the discussion, and Bromell's speaking style is rather dry. Panic is a clear example of why a "Criterion" or multi-speaker format is preferred. Still, in the final tally its better to have it than to not. I just wish it were a little livelier.
The disc has the film's theatrical trailer, and like so many films which don't fit into some predetermined formula, it's pretty clear Artisan had no idea how to market the damn thing. It's a pity that something as good as Panic was never really given a chance.
Finally, I just want to note that when they put their mind to it, Artisan does some of the best and most involving menus on the market. The menus for Panic give a great sense of what the movie is, but never give away too much of the film's actual content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a movie I don't really have any problems with Panic. There was some criticism that it was too much like "The Sopranos," but outside of the hitman seeing a shrink, there really is no comparison. There were also illusions made to American Beauty, but to be honest (and maybe to upset quite a few people), I found Panic to be a better movie. Some of the subject matter may be similar, but there is warmth to Panic that mostly comes courtesy of William H. Macy that pulled me into its world in a way that American Beauty never did.
Which really makes the way this movie was presented by Artisan all the more frustrating. There are so many big budgeted and well publicized bad movies thrown out at the public that fade quickly; wouldn't it be nice if we had a chance of knowing about the good ones?
As for the DVD of Panic, the only real complaint I have is for the lack of subtitles or close captions for the hearing impaired. How long will it take for the smaller companies to realize this is a vital part of any release?
It is with no small degree of irony that I note Panic and the last film I reviewed, You Can Count On Me, both came out of last year's Sundance Film Festival with great critical buzz. Both were the first films from talented writers; both were quiet movies that made their points with great poignancy and economy. Both deal with families and the ties that bind. Both films were also among the strongest movies of the year 2000, and in both cases, almost nobody saw them in the theaters. Which gives everyone the chance to make up for lost time and check these discs out. These are strong, well written and well directed movies that demand attention from any serious film lover. While Panic may not strike the deep emotional chord that You Can Count On Me did, it does possess enough humor, intelligence, evil and pathos to always remain involving. Panic is also a very good disc from Artisan and is strongly recommended.
Panic, Henry Bromell, cast and crew are all acquitted. This is a marvelous film that should be seen and I hope that it can find a second life on the video shelves. Artisan is given a stern slap on the wrist for bungling the movie's theatrical release but in the end is thanked for a fine disc.
That is it. This court now stands in recess.
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