dir. Henry Bromell
Opens Fri March 16 at the Varsity.

Three shots into the film Panic, we see our protagonist floating stiffly up the ascendant leg of an escalator, the descendant leg behind him making a crisp X. The camera holds back, the light is flat and wan, our man is really no more than a silhouette. And thus begins the opera, the escalator defining the crass, cold strength of fate, our hero imposed against it, powerless and inflexible. Our instincts tell us that things will not end nicely; the fact that the ending descends in 89 swift minutes is alone cause for compliment.

But my compliments won't stop there, for Panic is universally an excellent film, layered and surprising and literary, with something I'm just dying to tell you about, but must restrain myself from, at least for a bit. After all, there is reviewing to be done!

The film focuses on Alex (William H. Macy), a clenched jaw of a man impaled on his own midlife crisis. At the root of his silent dilemma is a desire to unseat himself from the family business, which consists of killing people for money. Complicating the landscape is his marriage, floundering and awkward and repressed, its domestic promise inverted into a clutching panic of silent needs and soft resentments.

A budding infatuation with Sarah (Neve Campbell), a pretty young thing he meets in his psychologist's lobby, manages to provide Alex with the illusion of escape, but as he is inexorably drawn up against his own morbid sense of propriety, it becomes painfully obvious that in this, too, he is stuck: Alex will neither consummate his desire, nor quench its useless existence. Director Henry Bromell sketches the scenes between Campbell and Macy with a delicate hand, giving them just enough freedom to allow their own limits to show through. They turn in quite a pair of performances, almost as good as the one I'm really excited to tell you about, but will have to wait, because you don't just jump ship mid-review to gush about anything.

Indeed, throughout the film, we see Alex as a quiet, stoic knot. Macy's excellent performance--his best so far--bleeds tension out of every pore of his body. You can almost see how tight his skin is over his muscles; you can feel his inability to move, and it makes you want to scream. Only in the few, quite lovely scenes in which Alex puts his son Sammy to bed does Macy allow his body to soften and relax, and it feels as if we have emerged from a tooth-drilling, or touched ground after a turbulent landing.

All of which is to say that Panic is a great film, as far as these things go. The tone is perfectly balanced between absurd black humor and a very real sense of tragedy. The layered construction, which jumps forward and back in time, lends the film a fatal air of inevitability. But still, all of this greatness--and it is great--is not even what I'm most excited to tell you about. Ah, hell... I can't wait any longer.

Here's the thing: This film belongs to Donald Sutherland. My God, gosh, golly, he is just so damn good here, it is a shame, really. He wasn't even nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his role--why not? Are people just stupid?

Sutherland plays Michael, Alex's father and founder of the family business. Of course, he is a father of the Noah Cross (of Chinatown) sort, all ego and evil, the ultimate authority. Sutherland nails the role with a perfect (I'm not exaggerating) balance of nonchalance and depravity: The centerpiece of his performance, an extended misogynistic rant on the viperous qualities of women, is hilarious against your will and leaves your flesh crawling.

It is an outrageous performance, but then, Michael is an outrageous character. In another scene, Sutherland teaches his son how to make a hit, sending him off with a gun and congratulating him for the kill: I cannot imagine another actor who could lend sincerity to the line, "I'm so proud of you, son," without getting lost in irony. Sutherland's brilliance here is precisely in his restraint: He gives the quantifiable opposite of an over-the-top performance, well within its limits, but in the service of an utter monster. Indeed, it is a privileged moment in the cinema. It's that good.