It’s a bit of a stretch to describe British director Sean Spencer’s debut feature, Panic, as “Rear Window for the 21st century”. But some have, and you get where they’re coming from because the nods in the direction of the Hitchcock classic are there for all to see. Spencer, however, is trying to give us something different, something more contemporary.
Music journalist Deeley (the compelling David Gyasi) lives in a North London flat and has developed a fascination with a girl in a neighbouring block. He watches her through binoculars and, one evening while entertaining a visitor, they see her being beaten. Rather than call the police, he goes to her flat to investigate and, finding it trashed and with blood on the walls, he follows the few leads he can find to track her down. And it takes him into a dark criminal underworld, involved in people trafficking and prostitution
From the outside, he’s more mobile than Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. He’s not hampered by a leg in plaster and doesn’t appear to be suffering. He’s a journalist with a certain amount of attitude and his build suggest he can handle himself. But that’s all on the outside. He suffers from crippling agoraphobia – even answering the front door means downing a tablet or two – and it’s all the result of a vicious attack in a club. The physical scars have healed and are hidden under his clothes, but the psychological ones are all too ready to show themselves at any moment. And they rule his life.
All of which is why he confines himself to his flat. He continues working as a journalist by interviewing musicians over the phone and keeps an eye on what happens in the outside world through his binoculars. And that especially includes the girl across the road. When he does go outside, there’s danger all around, inside his head and in reality. He’s clubbed once, comes close to something more serious, but also manages to give somebody else a beating. It’s all set against the film’s wider landscape of anonymous apartment blocks in a cold, unfeeling city. Each window, whether the light is on or not, conceals its own story and this is just one of them. Or two, if you include the girl in the other block. Except that, as Deeley digs deeper into her story, he discovers she’s an illegal immigrant. So, technically, she doesn’t exist.
The effects of trauma give Panic its contemporary angle. The attack on Deeley wouldn’t have attracted much attention at the time, and its after-effects get even less, except for his bottle of pills. Yet his emotional injuries, as well as his physical scars, are laid bare in the film.
David Gyasi’s magnetic central performance fuses it all together. He’s hardly ever off the screen and you wouldn’t want him to be. The searching, exploring camera constantly lingers on his face, examining his emotions from fear and terror through to the determination to regain some control over his life. He is, without doubt, the best reason for watching the film.
While it’s a thriller at heart, Panic tends to relegate suspense into second place, because Deeley’s issues – and Gyasi’s performance – are always given pole position. It manages to hold on to some tension and it’s shot with style, but never quite manages to jangle your nerves in quite the way it should.
Panic is released in cinemas now and on demand on Monday 21st November.