Saturday, June 30, 2018

Neglected Gem: Panic (2000)

Tracy Ullman and William H. Macy in Henry Bromell's Panic.

In Panic, written and directed by the late Henry Bromell, William H. Macy plays Alex, a Los Angeles man who is unhappy with his life. By day, Alex sells mail-order junk (“lawn ornaments, kitchen geegaws, sexual aids”); but by nightor day, as the case may behe kills people for hire. He didn’t get into the assassination business by accident. He was recruited by his father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), who now spends his semi-retirement coordinating his son’s hits; even Alex’s mother, Deidre (Barbara Bain), has been, in some undefined way, instrumental to the development of the family business and consequent warping of her son. Though he shares a deep rapport with his own son, the inquisitive, gentle-souled Sammy (David Dorfman), Alex and his wife, Martha (Tracy Ullman), are on marital life-support, trading off unpredictably between the affectionate ease and ashen boredom that come with long familiarity. Rapidly approaching a point where he will no longer be able to tolerate his life, Alex takes a breath, finishes his cigarette, and walks in for his first appointment with a therapist (John Ritter), to whom he reveals his secret profession.

Panic appeared within a year of the debut of The Sopranos (too close for the killer-in-therapy angle to be anything other than coincidence), and both works are impelled by a curiosity about the psychological impact of daily stress on men who do criminal work for a living. They also share camera angles and editing energies more suited to the small screen than to the big. Henry Bromell had an intriguingly diverse career: he began as an acclaimed short story writer, and The Slightest Distance (1974) and I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo (1979), which track an American diplomat’s family from the 1950s through the 1970s, remain well worth reading. But he was most notable as a writer-producer of television drama (Homicide: Life on the Streets, Northern Exposure, and Homeland, among others), and so it makes sense that Panic is essentially a TV movie – albeit award-winning cable TV. The story is dialogue-driven, with imagery serving either functionally or as a source of metaphor for what has already been sketched in talk and interaction. The clean, competent visuals derive from the modern architecture of downtown LA, with empty plazas, glass buildings, crisscrossing escalators, and isolated individuals moving through the backgrounds. Even the flashback to Alex’s first murder is understated, not flamboyant in the post-Tarantino manner – no gory kill shot, merely the shattered glass of a car window.

Clearly Bromell sees himself here not as a cameraman or artist of violence but as an actor’s director, and why not? He has the actors. Like Donnie Darko, which came out the following year, Panic has an offbeat crew of faces familiar from film and TV, with everyone getting to move at least a bit outside their ordinary range. Ritter conveys, with his quiet voice and searching expressions, the therapist’s disbelief, firmness, and compassion, in roughly that order. As Sarah, a bisexual hairdresser and struggling artist with whom Alex begins an affair after meeting her in the therapist’s waiting room, Neve Campbell is smoky-eyed and melancholic; her thoughtfulness and dancer’s grace give precision to the woman's confusion. Tracy Ullman is intensely appealing, with needs and angers that are visibly painful to her. Martha isn’t stupid; she sees that Alex’s mail-order business is a sham, that whole realms of his life are unknown to her, and she’s torn between wanting to dissolve his lies and wanting to simply walk out. Ullman has her best scene when Martha implores Alex to touch her, kiss her, make love to her – and then violently pushes him off, angry that he has forced her to such pathos. Bromell has written a beautiful, vindicating scene here, but it’s Ullman who puts it over. Barbara Bain, who most of us hadn’t seen since the Mission: Impossible reruns of childhood, is just right as the frosty, impeccably styled wife who is as dangerous in her way, we gather, as her husband. David Dorfman, later so memorable in The Ring (2002) and The Ring Two (2005), is not only an uncanny filial match for Ullman, but he has a way of speaking – sentences broken by sharp intakes of breath through a stuffed nose and awkward throat – that effectively renders a smart child’s patchy, tumbling thought process. I’m guessing this is what enables him to say such a thing as “I’m going through a green phase” and make it touching, not adorable. (On the other handjust to show that no instinct is infallibleBromell wastes the excellent Miguel Sandoval as a skeptical cop and handy plot device.) 

William H. Macy and Donald Sutherland in Panic.

Then there’s Donald Sutherland, whose performance is a thing of scary beauty. Small in scale, it nonetheless towers. Sutherland was never the most conventionally handsome man or most effortlessly appealing personality; but he was, from the beginning, an enthralling screen face and hauntingly odd presence. From Castle of the Living Dead (1964), where he first appeared in putty prosthetics as a cackling old crone – yet was immediately recognizable! – to the recent FX miniseries Trust, in which he played J. Paul Getty, Sutherland has possessed a diabolical capability that turns easily from abstracted stillness to something quite Mephistophelean. His Michael in Panic is a hateful man, with a general loathing for the world and a deep, dark suspicion of even those he loves – his wife and his son; yet he’s also seductive and majestic, the kind of father any son would spend his own terrified life trying to satisfy. Bromell gives the character key moments of self-exposure: a gutter ball thrown in a bowling alley, inspiring an obscene rant; small but shocking verbal abuses directed at Sammy; a threat of blackmail when Alex suggests he’d like to leave the family business. (A second after promising to ruin his son's life, Michael is grinning and carefree again, taking a waitress for a spin on the dance floor.) Finally, it’s Michael who forces the culminating violence – first by designating the therapist as his son’s next hit, and then by mixing family and business in a way Alex can’t allow. Hunched over a series of tables, his expressions of favor grudging, his anger quick and cobra-like, Michael is a man whose emotional patterns we can’t follow, whose pathology we cannot divine: a fearsome and calculating freak of nature.

Sutherland’s malevolence is one reason we feel protective of Macy’s Alex. The other is Macy himself, who has done better than anyone in American movies at making something existentially and dramatically viable from the little defeats of insignificant men. In Panic, he has the sad eyes and occasional desperate smile that are his chief expressive tools, but he also has a gravitas that we don’t recall from Fargo or Boogie Nights – a lower, steadier voice, a more pensive manner. Except when with his son, with whom he shares bedtime conversations that recur at intervals throughout the movie, Alex appears most centered when alone with his thoughts, dealing out failures in his mind like an eternal bad poker hand. The first time I saw Macy, in David Mamet’s 1987 House of Games, I couldn't get him out of my mind, though he was onscreen for just minutes. Playing a lonesome Marine waiting for money in a late-night Western Union office, utterly vulnerable to Joe Mantegna’s con artistry, Macy appeared so ingenuous and unactorly that it was difficult to accept, in the way it sometimes is, that the actor was not the character, and that the character was not a real person – someone of the precisely correct appearance, voice, and manner who happened to have been found on the street and hired to play himself. The Marines stiff, supplicating gait as he carried his suitcase to the counter to inquire after his money showed someone who had spent his life fearful of stepping outside the lines. Macy radiated warmth, modesty, and proportion, all so skillfully that his technique was undetectable. Ever since, I have cared about his characters, have desired their happiness and felt for their miseries. And so when, at the end of Panic, Alex’s rage and anxiety come to a head, it’s both a determined dramatic climax and the explosion of every cowed and humiliated man Macy has ever played. The ending has those echoes, that catharsis, that sorrow.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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