`Panic' has the makings of a hit

Review: Executioner William H. Macy seethes as his marriage falls apart under the weight of lies about his profession.

March 30, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the full-house ensemble of Henry Bromell's "Panic," Neve Campbell is the wild card.

She plays a sexually omnivorous L.A. woman who meets nice-guy hit man William H. Macy in a waiting room shared by their shrinks. She responds to the anguish in his eyes. Her spark of volatility detonates Bromell's tale of a professional hard guy who can no longer lie to his wife and young son (Tracey Ullman and David Dorfman) or suffer the emotional brutality of his boss/father (Donald Sutherland).

It's not surprising after "The Sopranos" (written separately and simultaneously) that an executioner entering a suburban middle-class therapy routine can elicit shocks, chuckles and tears. But Bromell and his cast manage to do it with characters who are as buttoned-up and WASP-ish as the Sopranos are operatic and Mediterranean. Bromell is modest yet not minimalist. He views suburban Los Angeles as land-mined terrain. He makes it the stage for full-fledged tragicomedy.

Macy tries to ensure that the sins of his father and himself will not be visited upon his son. His struggle is both wrenching and, by the end, oddly hopeful and touching.

The test of a genuine movie writer-director is how much of his drama he can express implicitly, through gesture and with indirection, so an audience feels it in the gut. Bromell aces the test in "Panic." What's great about the movie is how it manages to stress you out - pleasurably - in an unstressed way. As you watch two parallel marriages from succeeding generations - Macy and Ullman, Sutherland and Barbara Bain - Bromell compels you to understand that the latter are an indivisible unit while the former are cracking at the seams.

Bain, we learn, helped Sutherland found the family hit man business; she is totally in the know. But Macy has sworn to Mom and Dad that he'll never tell Ullman what he really does for a living. (Ullman thinks he's running a mail-order business.) I see "Panic" as a satisfying twisted metaphor for the guilt trips laid on baby boomers by the Greatest Generation. Unable to live up to Sutherland's expectations partly because of the conditions that his parents have laid down, Macy is ready to implode.

Happily, though, the movie doesn't let Macy off the hook. His own weakness keeps him tied to his dad's trigger finger. He can't grow up until he faces the prospect of his own son falling into what Sutherland calls his clan's "destiny."

When you think of Macy's track record, he's almost too perfect for the role. No actor around has derived more humor and pathos out of square-cut intensity and conciseness. He outdoes himself in "Panic." Compact and efficient in every move, he looks perfect, especially in wide shots, for committing hits or fulfilling other family obligations. He neatly crosses - no, slashes - the "f" and the "t" of the fate that Sutherland and Bain have structured for him. In close-up, his eyes betray his unformed soul.

Bromell echoes Macy in his own visual strategy. Up front, there's a good clean crackle to the texture and the look of Macy's home life. But the ensemble swiftly cues us into the emotional wreckage behind the picture windows.

Bromell respects Tracey Ull- man's character. He makes sure we know that Macy's lies and not her behavior have landed the man in this closed-off space. The movie provides the couple with a sexy, melancholy flashback; it suggests they were once lost and lucky to have found each other. Ullman rewards her director with her least actress-y performance; she eschews satire or irony for a gutsy sincerity that's ultimately valiant.

Just as crucial: David Dorfman is persuasive and beguiling as Macy and Ullman's beloved boy. In Bromell's framework, he's a pure embodiment of instinct. With unselfconscious hugs and nuzzlings, Dorfman and Macy get a prehensile communication going. This kid grows to have the second sight of the haunted children in D.H. Lawrence or Henry James. It's believable and heartbreaking that he picks up on what's happening with his parents, and with his grandparents, too.

But Campbell holds the key to the movie. If in his son, Macy can see himself as a young child, in Campbell, he can sense an equivalent of the turmoil he's experiencing right now. Macy's life has a rigid, artificial architecture; Campbell's has none at all. He's the guy who seems settled and contained at first glance but is seething underneath. She's roiling from the core all the way up to the surface. Her verbal riffs on their halting attempts at an affair are as lethal as his gunshots.

Campbell masters quivering expressions of sexual awareness reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. But Campbell uses them to signal psychological awareness, too. Most important, she's capable of spasms of honest yet inchoate emotion that compensate for the film's one weakness: its too-perfect symmetry. As Bromell's camera follows Campbell's seductive swirls of chaos, the movie plots its own course of liberation.

`Panic'

Starring William H. Macy, Neve Campbell, Donald Sutherland, Tracey Ullman, David Dorfman

Directed by Henry Bromell

Rated R, for violence, language and sexuality

Running time 90 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

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