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With: William H. Macy, John Ritter, Neve Campbell, Donald Sutherland, Tracey Ullman, David Dorfman
Written by: Henry Bromell
Directed by: Henry Bromell
MPAA Rating: R for language and elements of violence
Running Time: 88
Date: 01/22/2000

Panic (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Grace Under Pressure

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Henry Bromell's Panic is so good I almost couldn't believe it. But I pinched myself and it's true. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year. I love this movie.

William H. Macy stars (in a performance that should be considered for an Oscar) as a hit man named Alex working for his gangster father (Donald Sutherland). Unable to fight off his overwhelming sadness and unable to confide in his wife (Tracey Ullman), he begins seeing a shrink (a heavily bearded John Ritter). While in the waiting room, he meets a young woman named Sarah (Neve Campbell) whose spunky carelessness intrigues him. Meanwhile, his father assigns him a hit that makes him question his entire existence.

Writer/director Henry Bromell was, refreshingly, a fiction writer and not a music video director as seems to be the trend. He also contributed scripts to such intelligent television shows as Northern Exposure, Homicide, and Chicago Hope. Panic marks his feature writing and directing debut. It shows the patience of an artist willing to take time to set things up. With his veteran cameraman Jeffry Jur (Dirty Dancing, The Last Seduction) he gives his Panic smooth, clean surfaces. Macy himself is smooth and clean, with his crisp wardrobe and perfect hair. Only his eyes betray him. ("He has beautiful, sad eyes," Sarah tells a co-worker.) Even his killings are flawless. We see him kill a man in broad daylight in a courtyard with a hot dog vendor standing in plain view; you'd miss it if you blinked.

I'd love to discuss the intricate plot and how the chess pieces carefully block Alex in a corner, forcing him to make a hard choice. But part of the fun of this crime film is watching it unfold. Besides his smart screenplay, Bromell is equally adept at keeping the film alive. It could easily have descended into impenetrable coldness, but the women characters keep the film moving. "It's the women that run the world," Sutherland tells his son flatly. Ullman does amazing things as Alex's hurt wife, trying to break through her husband's wall. Campbell is electric, completely in command, but steeped in neuroses. And Barbara Bain as Alex's mother is wonderfully clueless, asking everyone if Alex is getting enough sex.

A big surprise is Donald Sutherland, who projects a sinister side I've never seen in him before. He was psychotic in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and mysterious in JFK (1991), but here he's positively frightening. Macy is no doubt the star of the picture, though, using his barely contained exterior and soft eyes to pull us in. It's the same trick he pulled in films like Fargo (1996) and Magnolia (1999), but it's a good trick, and Macy is the best at it.

Panic apparently failed miserably at an audience test screening earlier this year, prompting its first distributor to drop it like a hot rock. But San Francisco's Roxie Releasing (Red Rock West & Freeway) has now came to its rescue. Test screenings usually don't allow for certain things. They don't allow for slow-moving stories. They don't allow for movies that build scenes with textures. And they don't allow for movies where the entire plot hinges on a single painful decision made by one man. Panic is such a movie.

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