William H. Macy's hit man commands a serious black comedy, a quiet thriller that's also an evocation of middle-aged disappointment.

Published January 19, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

For a film titled "Panic," the feature debut from writer-director Henry Bromell is strikingly calm. The state it evokes is one of drowning by increments in familiar surroundings that have gradually become intolerable. It's about life as a prolonged anxiety attack, where getting through the next hour, even getting your next easy breath, seems nearly impossible. There has never been an evocation of middle-aged disappointment like it.

Unfortunately, the story of how "Panic" almost didn't get released is all too familiar. It's worth repeating if only to illustrate the way independent companies are increasingly aping the practices of the big studios. After seeing "Panic" last year, Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter did some digging. He reported that after acquiring the film, Artisan Entertainment promptly sold it to HBO to show on cable. Hunter noted how strange it was for a company that had successfully marketed non-niche pictures like "The Blair Witch Project," Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog" and Darren Aronofsky's "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream" to give up so easily on a movie that was hard to categorize. But that's apparently just what Artisan did after one test screening with a mostly teenage audience in a Los Angeles mall.

Hunter quotes the film's producer, Andrew Lazar, saying, "The test screening was a ruse." In other words, Artisan ensured a negative reaction from an audience it knew would not respond to the film to "prove" its hunch that the movie had no audience appeal. When an independent company behaves like that, it ceases to be any different from the big studios. Luckily for "Panic," and for the audiences who will get to see it in theaters around the country, a real independent, San Francisco's Roxie Releasing (which performed a similar rescue mission a few years ago with Matthew Bright's "Freeway"), managed to acquire it. "Panic" is a small movie, to be sure, but it's also a thoroughly original one.

Even some of the critics who have come out for it don't quite seem to know how to classify it. It's being called a black comedy, maybe because the premise -- middle-aged hit man (William H. Macy) consults shrink (John Ritter) about midlife crisis -- is familiar from "The Sopranos" and "Analyze This." But despite the movie's wry humor, the extreme situation is played straight, as a pained examination of the conflict between fathers and sons.

In "Panic" the domineering father who feels it's his duty to teach his weak son how to get along in the world is a literal proponent of "kill or be killed." Macy's Alex leads what looks like an ordinary middle-class life, running a mail-order business out of his home. But not even his wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), knows that he makes his real money carrying out the hits that his father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), has contracted, a job he has been trained to do since boyhood -- and trained not to talk about. That's the vow Alex breaks when, disgusted and unable to stand up to his father, he goes to see a psychologist. And things get even worse for poor Alex when his father hands him his latest assignment: the shrink.

There's an imaginative logic at work in casting Sutherland and Macy as father and son. It's not that they look alike, but something in their long, unusual faces suggests a family connection. And when Sutherland, with his tall frame, is placed next to the somewhat diminutive Macy, Bromell uses the discrepancy in their stature to get at the hold Michael has over his son. It's a poisonous relationship, which Bromell suggests in all sorts of subtle ways -- in the way Sutherland orders for his son when they lunch together and even in the restaurants where they have business meetings, places with red leather banquettes that look as if neither the décor nor the wait staff has changed in 50 years. It's exactly the opposite of the relationship Alex has with his own son, Sammy, an inquisitive, intelligent boy played with an almost preternatural perceptiveness by David Dorfman. The scenes between Macy and Dorfman are relaxed little duets in which Alex is amused and delighted by his son's unexpected questions. ("Dad, what's infinity?")

You can see that none of Alex's care is going to matter if he can't get free of his parents' tentacles. When Alex confides in his mother, Deidre (Barbara Bain), that he's thinking of quitting the family business, Bromell unleashes one of his deadpan jokes. Deidre tells her son she watched his father build up this business and she's not going to watch it ruined. It's a parody of a parental pep talk, except that there's ice water in this woman's veins, and that makes her the perfect mate for Sutherland.

Bromell avoids any traces of what we've come to accept as mob life. In fact, there's no evidence that Sutherland is even in the mob, no evidence that he's anything more than a ruthless bastard who figured out a brutal way to make a buck. Sutherland's greatest talent has always been his ability to play average, decent people without condescending to them or making them seem dully virtuous. So it's a shock to see how terrifying he is here. He employs the same soft manner he always has, only this time with a will of iron behind it. (He suggests what James Coburn's father from hell in "Affliction" might have been if he'd made a bourgeois success of himself.)

The subtlety -- and the subversiveness of the film -- is the way it depicts all the little life lessons a father passes on to his son and, more chillingly, to his grandson as amoral indoctrination. One of the more unnerving scenes of any recent movie is the flashback in which Michael teaches the young Alex to use a gun by killing squirrels. It's typical of Bromell's understated technique that we don't see any bloodied animal corpses, just the terror and confusion in the young Alex's eyes as he works to please his father. Bromell brings the same understatement to a scene of Michael and Deidre disciplining Sammy -- it gives you the creeps because you feel all of their corruption being passed on to a new generation.

Bromell, who has also written fiction, has done most of his work writing and producing TV shows like "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "I'll Fly Away." "Panic" has the small-scale feel of television but also much of what's good about the best television drama: the attention to writing and to character. (Week after week, you're more likely to see solid writing on television than at the movies.) The most impressive thing about "Panic" is that though it flirts with being a thriller and a black comedy, Bromell keeps it on its own wavelength as a tale of depression with menacing undertones. And it's as telling a comment as any on the obstacles that face filmmakers trying to do something different that the very thing that makes the movie distinctive is the same thing that made Artisan look at it and go, "Huh?"

What makes it all work is Macy's performance. He's one of the few actors who can play depressive without becoming a drag, who can play weak without seeming like a fool. He's got a face like a happy-go-lucky newspaper delivery boy of the 1940s. The poignancy of his performance here is that he makes you feel the adult struggling to get out. Macy has some terrific scenes with Ullman, who does a nice job as a woman trying to allay her fears that something isn't right with her husband, especially in the scene where, starved for affection, she begs him to make love to her.

He's even better in his scenes with Neve Campbell, as the young hairdresser he meets in his shrink's waiting room. Together they suggest the attraction that can connect two people when all the other lines of communication are messy. Campbell is exciting to watch here because from scene to scene there's no telling in what direction she'll head. All of the contradictions of the character are expressed in the tension between her full, generous mouth and those hard-set little eyes. She's a mixture of openness and suspicion, nervous energy and aloof watchfulness, both steely and needy, and possesses all the charisma of the truly screwed up.

But it's Macy's show and, while it's not easy to hold an audience as a character works out a crisis he can barely bring himself to articulate, he manages it. The movie, and Macy's performance, build to a moment that it's nearly impossible to resolve your feelings about: the uncomplicated smile that shines beatifically from Macy's face as he savors his eventual triumph. Alex is free at last, and you don't know whether to be glad for him or to feel as if you've just been slapped.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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