Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Panic (2000)

Panic is a hitman story that treats the job as a quiet, haunting, matter-of-fact profession. Rather than shown to be the daring, exciting lifestyle that a lot of Hollywood films depict it to be, here it's just another job, something that's cold, calculating, and unemotional. Donald Sutherland is the patriarch who got into the business because of his wife, but we never find out who he actually works for or the reason behind the hits. He raises his son Alex (William H. Macy) to be his partner, taking him out to the woods to kill a squirrel as a boy, and then slowly teaching him the tricks of the trade so that by the time he might know better, a sense of indifference over killing people is already engrained in his mind. 

The drama of the story though concerns Alex as a middle-aged man with a wife and kid of his own, and his trouble coping with life in general: the idea of being a hitman is starting to wear down on him, but he's also just emotionally fraught over how sad he feels, how disconnected he is from his wife and how a young woman named Sarah (Neve Campbell) is the only thing that makes him feel okay. 

He meets her in the waiting room of a psychotherapy office, where he has regular meetings with a psychologist, played by John Ritter. Though this is supposed to help him, it doesn't really. The idea is that this is a man who simply cannot get relief from anything in life, where everything is stressful, awkward, or painful. He makes a half-assed pursuit of Sarah, who's the kind of strange, open-minded, and honest person who doesn't see this is a problem, but his devotion to his wife keeps him from having the kind of affair she might find exciting. But he still feels guilty over this and his wife senses it, causing tensions to brew beneath the surface at home.

On top of that, his father wants him to carry out another hit, but Alex is torn between obeying and getting out of the family business. You get the sense that because his father trained him from a young age, Alex still feels his authority over him, that he's like a young boy afraid of getting punished by acting against his dad's command. Macy's always been best at playing characters who possess an almost youthful naiveté and then who stress out over stupid situations they get in, so this is really the perfect role for him. It helps that physically he sort of looks like the kind of person who sans the facial wrinkles probably looked just the same when he was a kid. 

Sutherland is also ideal casting here because contrary to Macy he's got a domineering physical presence and an intimidating voice. It's the kind of power that a father luring his son into the business of killing would need to have. "I'm not sure I've ever gotten angry," Alex says to his psychologist. "You've never gotten angry at your father?" he asks. "No," Alex replies with a kind of smirk of disbelief that that would even be a possibility. I gathered that the chilly machinations of the killing business (the hardest part, the father explains, is not the act itself but keeping the job a secret) and his father's sense of power over him has sucked any possibility of expressing emotion out of him. If there's an overarching point to the movie, it might be the terrifying feeling a man gets when he realizes he's needs to feel something and doesn't know how to.

 Sutherland also captures the underlying stress that the father also feels, because he knows he's getting old and that he can't rely on his son the way he used to. In a great scene we see Alex's son receiving a model plane for his birthday from his grandfather, who tries to put on the face of a kindly grandpa but then suddenly explodes when the boy accidentally sprays the model glue over the table. 

Despite its subject of hitmen, and one sort of dumb plot point that's contrived to give the film some suspense, Panic is less a thriller than a lean, taut character piece. It's only 87 minutes and it moves with the fluidity of a really good short story where there's a lot happening but every element is carved down to its essentials. And that's not surprising since it was written and directed by Henry Bromell, who made a career mainly as a novelist and a screenwriter and whose script is clearly the work of someone with years of experience with dramatic structures under his belt. 

As a director, he's not much of a stylist, his camera rarely moving (probably the most showy move is in a parking lot where Alex prepares for his first kill: we get a medium shot of the man to be killed in his car, then a cut to a crane shot as the camera slowly moves downward to reveal Alex and his father watching from a distance in their car, but it feels clumsy and a better director could have staged it more effectively) and always exactly where you'd expect it to be, but the lack of creative choices here seems fitting for the cold, spare storytelling at hand, and also the no-nonsense aspect of carrying out kills. "Never get complicated, keep things simple," the father explains to Alex in a flashback to his first hit.  This is not supposed to be a glamorous life, but it's sustainable if the execution is flawless. But few things are, and Panic shows with quiet devastation the impossibility such a thing when our volatile selves emerge. 

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