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'Panic': Suburbia Can Be Murder

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2001


    'Panic' William H. Macy and Neve Campbell star in "Panic." (Artisan)
In "Panic," Alex is having a midlife crisis. His marriage is stale, and he wants out of the family business. "Ever get the feeling you're dead?" he asks. The thing is, the family business is murder, and the firm consists of him and his father. The whole thing is rather complicated.

"Panic" is a deeply subversive and intriguing movie. And extremely cool. As with "American Beauty," its turf is the rotted soul of American suburbia, but writer-director Henry Bromell's take is less sensational and more skillful than the earlier film's. Suburban angst and anomie are not exactly unexamined territory, so it's even more impressive that Bromell manages to surprise as well as chill us. From the opening vistas of an empty modern office plaza echoing with silent menace, we know this journey is going to be unsettling.

"My tits are saggin'," says Alex's dad, Michael (Donald Sutherland in a subtle and brilliant performance), when asked how he is. Not exactly the way you expect a white-haired dad to respond. Bromell unsettles us very incrementally; we know we're headed toward some cataclysm, but the layering of character, event and atmosphere is so clever that we are startled even though we know it's coming.

It's unusual to have so many good actors in one small independent film. Alex is played by William H. Macy, whose impassive Everyman persona is deftly used here. You find yourself rooting for this guy even though you know he's a professional killer. John Ritter, looking like a teddy bear in dark beard and too-long hair, plays his therapist. (Okay, so it's a device "The Sopranos" has made familiar. It's still useful.) While waiting in Ritter's office, Alex meets another patient -- Sarah (Neve Campbell), one of the most intriguing characters in the film. But then all the characters are intriguing except perhaps for Alex's wife (a very low-key Tracey Ullman). He has never told her his real source of income, so all she has to do is be understandably confused as the communication gap between them widens.

Sarah is 23, a hairdresser and a sexually bold gamin. Campbell is charming in the role -- conflicted, direct, sexy and, despite her wackiness, quite sensible. She's not going to let herself be used by some guy with a boring midlife crisis unless she makes the rules.

Another surprise is David Dorfman, an adorable child actor who plays Alex's 6-year-old son, Sammy. The bedtime conversations between the two are the one oasis of uncontaminated feeling in the film, and a big part of Macy's seductive appeal. If he's such a good dad, you think, can he be that bad a guy?

The father-son vortex is a big part of the plot, as scene by scene Sutherland's Michael reveals more venality and Alex chafes -- too late -- against his iron hold. It is only when Alex's mother (Barbara Bain) and Michael go after Sammy, calling him an idiot and then beginning to indoctrinate him into the family firm, that Alex can break with his father.

Bromell's previous work was in television ("Homicide," "Northern Exposure," "I'll Fly Away") and publishing (five novels and numerous short stories). "Panic," his first film, was shown at Sundance and other film festivals, and then sold directly to video. Now is your chance to see it in a theater -- the art house Visions Cinema -- and anyone interested in serious film should absolutely not miss it.

Panic (88 minutes, at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge) is rated R, presumably for profanity and a little sex, and for being over the heads of most kids.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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