2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #2: "Psychological Distress"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 24, 2000

Over the past few years, my experience of coming to Park City has been to travel from relatively warm climate (at least as "warm" as can be found in the Northeast during the winter) to an icebox. This year, however, it's different. Having left behind a snow-covered New Jersey with wind chills of 20 below zero, Park City seems balmy by comparison. So, having been placed in a good mood by the weather, it has been up to the quality of the movies to maintain my energy and enthusiasm.

Fortunately, thus far, they have been up to the task.

Henry Bromell's Panic, an entry into the "American Spectrum" category, is a perfect example of what the average Sundance film has become in 2000. It features recognizable stars and has the kind of storyline with the potential to play reasonably well in the average American multiplex. Like Grosse Pointe Blank, Analyze This, and TV's The Sopranos, Panic features a premise that's quickly growing tired - that of a gangster/bad guy who visits a shrink. In this case, the patient is Alex (William H. Macy). Ultimately, the film is less about his relationship with his doctor (played by John Ritter) than about the reasons he's seeing a psychologist in the first place.

The beginning of Panic plays a lot like that of American Beauty, and the two have more than a few plot elements in common. Alex is suffering through a mid-life crisis. In a line that sounds like it was written for Kevin Spacey in last year's film, he comments, "Do you ever get the feeling you're dead - like a dog hit in the street and left there to rot." It turns out that Alex is tired of his marriage and wants to find a way out of the family business - being a hit man. While spending time in the psychologist's waiting room, he meets and bonds with Sarah (Neve Campbell), a "pretty young thing." Soon, he is obsessed with her and she is finding his "beautiful, sad eyes" difficult to resist.

However, as promising as Panic is at the start, the last half hour disappoints. The mix of drama and black comedy devolves into standard melodramatic fare, and the concluding act is depressingly conventional. Bromell also cheats his audience by going for the easy way out - that way, there are no loose ends left dangling, and everything is tied up into a tidy package that uses the final scene as an ironic bow. The edge evidenced by Panic during its first half is nowhere in sight by the time the end credits begin to roll.

The film features five key relationships. The one accorded the most screen time is that between Alex and Sarah. Because the dialogue between the two has a natural, unforced feel and because Neve Campbell displays actual acting aptitude, the scenes between these two generally work. Equally effective is the interaction between Alex and his father (Donald Sutherland), who is using a combination of guilt and parental domination to keep his adult son in the business. There's a little bit of Affliction in this father/son bond, but Panic never gets as dark as the Paul Schrader movie. The film's three underdeveloped relationships are those between Alex and his shrink, Alex and his son (played by young David Dorfman, who, despite being cute, is not a very good actor), and Alex and his wife (Tracey Ullman).

Had Bromell displayed a little more inventiveness and willingness to explore darker territory, Panic could have been an engrossing motion picture from start to finish. As it is, it's the kind of movie that is sporadically compelling, but not consistently so. Once you've seen the first hour, there's really no need to sit through the rest, since almost everything that transpires during the final thirty minutes is easily predicted by anyone who understands the conventional storyline handbook.

Panic isn't the only Sundance 2000 film to use psychological distress as a lynch pin. Marc Forster's Everything Put Together, an entry into this year's Dramatic Competition, takes a seemingly limited and overly-melodramatic premise and puts teeth into it by constantly defying expectations. He also shows a strong understanding of emotions and relationships, and fashions a film that becomes increasingly involving as we are drawn deeper into the disintegrating existence of the main character. Forster's view of the dark side of human interaction provides a powerful and haunting message that is punctuated with vigor during the chilling final scene.

Radha Mitchell (High Art), one of Everything Put Together's few recognizable faces, plays Angie, who is pregnant with her first child. She and her husband (Justin Louis) are delighted. After a normal delivery, an 8 pound, 11 ounce, perfectly healthy baby boy is placed in the nursery. The next day, he is dead from SIDS. Suddenly, Angie's entire world is out-of-focus. She is hallucinating, experiencing strange dreams, and acting dissociated from her surroundings. Her relationship with her husband becomes cold and distant. And her friends, all of whom have young babies, stop calling and visiting because they feel awkward and uncomfortable around her. She is a failed member of the "mothers' club" and they don't want her around as a reminder of what could have happened to them.

Forster elected to shoot Everything Put Together on digital video, a choice that was probably made more because of cost issues than stylistic ones. But the harsh, almost sterile look works to emphasize the emotional coldness that permeates the film, as layers of hypocrisy are revealed, and as supposedly-stable relationships are shown to be facades.

Mitchell offers a powerful and compelling portrayal of a woman who is teetering on the edge, and whose behavior causes her husband increasing worry. Angie hears ghostly baby cries at night, sneaks into a friend's house to cuddle her newborn, and hires a babysitter to care for an empty house. Yet the movie never takes the obvious or melodramatic track, and that is one of its greatest strengths. Hollywood would never approach this story with the same restraint. Instead of turning the movie into a conventional thriller, Forster keeps the focus on the lead character and the drama of her situation, resisting obvious and less satisfying plot routes.

Everything Put Together is not without flaws. Early in the film, Mitchell becomes overly fond of quick cuts and other visual flourishes that are more likely to induce nausea than establish a mood. Also, his need to convey information about SIDS to the audience makes at least one scene come across like a public service announcement. For the most part, however, this is a fine, haunting motion picture. The question is, with its unpolished digital video look and its lack of a marketable star, will it attract the attention of the ever-circling distributors? After all, they're all angling for the next The Blair Witch Project, and that label clearly does not apply here.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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