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Panic
cast: William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, Neve Campbell, Tracey Ullman, and John Ritter

writer and director: Henry Bromell

88 minutes (15) 2000
widescreen ratio 16:9
Prism Leisure / Odyssey Quest
DVD Region 2 rental / retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Emily Webb
The always brilliant William H. Macy plays Alex, a middle aged man in therapy struggling with the duplicity of his life. At home he is a family man, albeit experiencing problems with his wife Martha (Tracey Ullman); at work, he is in the family business run by his father Michael (Donald Sutherland) and desperate to get out. However, it's not a normal family business. The family is in the business of contract killing...

This Sopranos-esque film is essentially about a man in crisis and at a crossroads that leads him into therapy. The conversations between Alex and his therapist Dr Parks (the late John Ritter) reveal the torment of his secret life (his wife does not know he is a hitman). It is in the therapist's waiting room that Alex meets 23-year-old Sarah (Neve Campbell) who awakens in him feelings that have been long repressed. Sarah is uninhibited, yet also disturbed (she is in therapy after all!) and Alex finds himself attracted to her.

It is in the relationship with his six-year-old son Sammy that Alex is truly himself and Sammy questions his dad in a way that causes him to ponder his life's meaning: tucking Sammy into bed every night, Alex struggles to answer Sammy's question "What is infinity?" The unravelling of the mystery of Alex's 'secret' life and the deep-seated causes of his sadness are revealed in the therapy sessions and the title of the film is suggestive of the conflict that is aroused in Alex: the iron-fisted control his father has over him, his family obligations and the growing need for him to break free from the family business and stop the cycle of evil that quietly dominates his life.

Donald Sutherland is chilling as Alex's father who wields extraordinary power over his son. The most disturbing scenes of the film show Michael training a young Alex, and later Sammy, in how to use a gun by shooting squirrels. Without ruining the movie, the tension climaxes when Michael, unhappy at Alex's desire to get out of the family business, orders him to kill Dr Parks. This order represents the removal of the only person sympathetic to Alex and the absolute control that Michael demands over his son's life.

Panic is a slow-burner. It is beautifully quiet, despite the heavy content. The cast are true quality. Tracey Ullman, best known for her comedic talents, is stunning in her portrayal of a wife who is being frozen out of her husband's life. Donald Sutherland, as ever, is menacing and cold. The only weak link is Neve Campbell: although competent in her role as Sarah, I felt that an actress more flawed (Jennifer Jason Leigh springs to mind but Chloe Sevingny or Radha Mitchell would fit the bill) would have been slightly more authentic. I couldn't help but think of Campbell in her role as Sidney Prescott in the Scream trilogy and this, I think detracted from the character - an integral one.

Henry Bromell, best known for his writing work on television series such as Chicago Hope and Homicide: Life On The Streets, delivers an intelligent and sophisticated screenplay translated into a film that is lingering and full of melancholy. Considering it is his first feature film, called 'extraordinary' by critics when it was shown at the Maryland Movie Festival in 2000, Bromell will be an interesting and exciting director to watch.

Legendary US film critic, Roger Ebert, called this movie "too smart" to be released nationally in the US. It is an intelligent film that has gained heat from word-of-mouth and critical acclaim, rather than a wide cinematic release or big publicity campaign. Interestingly, William H. Macy has been quoted as saying "Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood." This is food for thought while watching Panic and contemplating Macy's film roles.
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