Waking the Dread


Panic is a movie that plays against its title. Henry Bromell’s feature does not lack for action, but its real subject is stasis. If it weren’t so uncommercial a name, this methodical yet affecting William H. Macy vehicle might well be called Unhappiness.

As with many of the best American movies of 2000, Panic had its premiere at Sundance and, having opened theatrically last month in San Francisco (after a late summer Cinemax cablecast), arrives here on a cushion of positive notices. Like You Can Count On Me, Panic is a dialogue-rich, actor-driven, family-centered first feature scripted and directed by an experienced writer. Panic, however, has an outlandish genre premise: Alex, a mild-mannered fortysomething contract killer (Macy), tries in vain to extricate himself from the operation established by his supremely overbearing father.

There’s a dissertation to be written on the transformation of the American hitman from the scary, soulless robots of ’60s movies like Johnny Cool and The Killers to the humorous, all-too-human guys who inhabit Pulp Fiction, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Nurse Betty. As befits a producer of Northern Exposure (and in the tradition of The Sopranos), Bromell attempts to put this culture hero on the couch. Depression personified, Alex seeks therapy; in his shrink’s waiting room he makes the acquaintance of a vibrantly confused 23-year-old beautician (Neve Campbell) named Sarah. These encounters serve to complicate Alex’s relations with his monstrous parents (Donald Sutherland and Barbara Bain), his unknowing wife (Tracey Ullman), and his precocious six-year-old son (David Dorfman).

Alex is trapped in a hateful job and a stale marriage. Held down by his father’s expectations even as he attempts to bring up his own son, he’s caught in a generational pincer. Steeped in metaphor as it is, Panic offers a more naturalistic analysis of male midlife crisis than the grotesquely overpraised American Beauty. The scenes between apologetic, persistent Alex and his vision of liberation—the emotionally vulnerable, if sexually confident, Sarah—are particularly well written. These blunt, comic sallies suggest a stumbling tango executed by two characters enmeshed in their respective family dramas. “You figured out what you’re doing here yet?” she asks after the mild-mannered killer has managed to hangdog his way into her dump.

The movie belongs to Macy, but the performances are excellent throughout—even the kid’s—although, playing one of the worst patriarchs since John Huston ran Chinatown, Sutherland invests the father with more physical menace than the role requires. Bromell too strains for a menacing look, making studied use of L.A.’s alienated public spaces. Like its hero, this carefully framed movie lives under the sign of the superego. Still, inadvertent disclosures and cosmic ironies abound. Alex dresses as the devil for his son’s birthday party and listens dumbly as his analyst (John Ritter), blissfully unaware of the identity of Alex’s next victim, exclaims, “You’re lying to your own therapist!”

Panic‘s bleakest joke delegates the LAPD to terminate Alex’s therapy by forcing a weird form of transference. Panic has been described as a black comedy, but it plays like a Greek tragedy—and that’s even before you’ve figured out which of those Attic scenarios it’s going to be.

Nasty as pond scum, The Gift is a creepily effective button-pusher that owes a bit to the original Cape Fear both in Sam Raimi’s ruthless direction and Keanu Reeves’s unexpectedly robust performance as the most violent redneck peckerwood in a steamy Georgia town. In the same spirit with which the woods are populated by threatening loonies, Raimi fills his movie with little jolts. Not that these cattle-prod flash-forwards (or -backs) are necessary; the director, reprising a few tricks from his Evil Dead days, can extract a chill from the sound of a leaky faucet.

Having parachuted into the bayou from points unknown, Cate Blanchett plays a fortune-teller with an incongruously svelte wardrobe and three little kids to raise. The character oscillates between glamorous outsider and widder woman of the swamp, secular-humanist shrink and New Age mystic. Indeed, she’s the town therapist, reading cards to advise the sick and the abused. Like her, the movie is at once superstitious and liberal. When Blanchett tells a battered wife (Hilary Swank) to leave her husband (Reeves), she makes an implacable enemy. Reeves assumes the burden of fundamentalist ignorance, tormenting this creature of Hollywood as a satanist, “no better than a Jew or a nigger.”

Although the sanest person in town, Blanchett is nevertheless vexed by visions and nightmares, and when the rich vixen engaged to the local school principal turns up missing, she’s called upon to turn psychic detective. The Gift slows down with a trial that naturally devolves on the star, then rallies for a muddled ending. Greg Kinnear gives a properly stricken performance as the wimpy principal while, as his AWOL fiancée, Katie Holmes reveals a side of herself that would make the hounds howl back on Dawson’s Creek. The Gift was cowritten by Billy Bob Thornton, who, busy elsewhere, evidently bequeathed to Giovanni Ribisi his signature role, the village idiot who doubles as Blanchett’s guardian angel.

Reviewing movies in New York is a process of continual revision. The “Soviet Sixties” show last fall at the Walter Reade yielded several hitherto unknown New Wave auteurs—mainly Marlen Khutsiev—and, in the haunting A Long and Happy Life, one mind-altering film. Similarly, last month’s BAM screening of the 1968 medieval epic Marketa Lazarova changed the face of Czech cinema, at least for the 200 people who saw it. The new year starts with the belated discovery of Tatsumi Kumashiro (1927-95), introduced with no small fear and trembling, by the Japan Society.

Unmentioned in any major English-language history of Japanese cinema, Kumashiro was the key figure in roman poruno (romantic porn), a low-budget mode—predicated on frequent, softcore sex scenes and ample, if partial, female nudity—that was launched in 1971 by the foundering Nikkatsu studio. An experienced assistant director, Kumashiro brought a mixture of emotional intensity and aesthetic detachment to this material. His 1972 Following Desire (showing January 26), a convincingly tawdry tale of backstage rivalry, establishes its self-reflexive strategy by using a rotating bed in a mirrored hotel room for its first love scene. The real-life stripper Sayuri Ichijo plays herself and won the Kinema Jumpo award for best actress.

Kumashiro has a fondness for long takes, contrapuntal sound, and iconic freeze-frames—most spectacularly in the joke that ends Following Desire. He’s a minimalist whose movies are based around a few strongly articulated ideas. The mix of formal sophistication and crudely telegraphed emotions, as well as dark humor, political backbeat, and skilled deployment of limited resources, suggests the similarly prolific Sam Fuller and R.W. Fassbinder. Kumashiro was most active in the early ’70s, when he adapted all manner of literary works (including Sade’s Justine and the source for Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession) to roman poruno. The 1973 World of Geisha, showing March 23, evidently impressed François Truffaut with its humanism. Based on an anonymous story about a geisha’s first night with a new client, the movie is boldly structural in its use of punctuating intertitles and references to political events outside the hermetic world of the geisha’s room.

Bitterness of Youth (1974), which opens the retro Friday, was Kumashiro’s first non-roman poruno, based on a novel with a family resemblance to Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and set in a milieu of imploded student radicalism: A callow law student impregnates the classmate he is tutoring, then dumps her for his wealthy cousin. The most extraordinary scene has the antihero and his ex revisit the ski resort where they began their affair—carrying on in the snow in a long, behavioral sequence that recapitulates their relationship as they roll struggling and screaming downhill toward a raging river.

In Kumashiro, less is more. The Woman With Red Hair (1979), showing March 21, is an investigation of the human sexual response that begins with two construction workers raping their boss’s daughter. One continues that involvement, the other shacks up with the eponymous drifter for an obsessive, bordering on hysterical, erotic relationship. Three-quarters of the movie takes place in bed—the claustrophobia heightened by constant rain and the chorus of moaning junkies downstairs. You know you’re in Kumashiro-land when the besotted hero sings a song to his penis and the spectacle of explicit sex is less prurient than agonized.