- William H. Macy as Alex
- Donald Sutherland as Michael
- Neve Campbell as Sarah
- John Ritter as Dr. Josh Parks
- Tracey Ullman as Martha
A crime drama with roots in themes of twisted family manipulations and the want to change, Panic is one of those movies that really takes you by surprise in my instances. Panic is an unexpected and extremely underrated gem of a film with a feeling of inexorable tragedy slowly coming out in its story of a man in midlife crisis of a most unusual kind.
Alex is a sad-eyed, middle-aged man who goes to see a psychotherapist named Josh Parks to get his life in order. Once there, he surprisingly reveals that he is actually a hit man who has been trained by his sly and corrupting father Michael since he has young. Dr. Parks listens in shock and dismay, but wants to know more if anything to possibly help a desperate Alex. Though Alex is a hit man, he doesn’t want to be one anymore. Yet as he is so scared of his imposing father and knows that it won’t be easy to just discard that part of his life, that he is currently undergoing a severe crisis of conscience. He keeps his deadly profession hidden from his wife Martha and young son to protect them, even though his relationship with his wife is on shaky ground as it is. Around this trying time for poor Alex, he encounters Sarah; a sprightly, sexually adventurous young woman who is completely forward and ever so neurotic. He finds himself drawn and infatuated with this kooky girl and this is one of the things that makes him want to quit. Yet just as he wants to tell his domineering father that he can’t do it anymore, the man gives him his next assignment. The man he is expected to kill is Dr. Parks, which throws everything out of control and puts more strain on the already pressured Alex. Alex is put through the wringer as he deliberates what he is going to do about the issues and dangerous circumstances surrounding him.
Henry Bromell adroitly directs this drama that involves crime, but is largely focused on the conscience of a man wanting to escape it all. Although the title suggests overt drama, it’s the internal struggle and scruples of the main character that elicit the most power and turbulence. Panic is a dark and engrossing study of warped family loyalty and pressure disguised by parental superiority. Everyone has a feeling when they are younger of being a good child and looking up to your parents, but what if your parents aren’t what you thought? That’s the main thing going on in Panic; Alex is smothered by his father’s dominance that he’s slyly held over him and employed in such a way that his son knows no different and is now suffering. We frequently get shots of important moments in a non-linear fashion that highlight the history of the characters, in particular how Alex was trained by his father in a scene where he has his young son shoot a squirrel as his first kill. Scenes like this are shocking( but not because they are bloody, no violence is explicitly seen) but for how it frames the father as a corrupting and malevolent presence over his son’s life that simply won’t let go of him in adulthood. There’s an exceptional back and forth between the past and present, filmed without the need for intertitles, as it respects the audience and can frequently be audacious. From what I’ve read about the movie, it was praised on release but never quite connected with audiences. This is a shame because Panic has much to offer movie fans, in how it mixes genres and has a certain haunting quality about it that stays with you. A peppering of black and ironic humour is sprinkled into Panic, particularly in how Michael discusses the business of killing people in a way that is so blasé yet menacing to his son and how the therapist listens with both a dumbfounded shock and yet inquisitive ear to Alex’s mournful confessions. Occasionally, the tone gets muddled but this is few and far between in an accomplished and atypical story that has a real poignancy. A lot of the success is down to the script written by director Henry Bromell, that fleshes out the dilemma of Alex and his predicament in a seemingly impossible situation. A moody and pulsing score is simply exemplary throughout Panic, hinting at the spiral of one man attempting to break out of his chains.
William H. Macy cuts a mournful and tired figure playing Alex; who wants out of the family business, but is buckling under the weight of everything on him. The ever so talented Macy wonderfully and subtly brings the nervousness and sadness of this man at tipping point out for the audience to see, which makes it a stellar performance of buried anguish and stifling anger. You couldn’t have asked for a better person for the role, as William H. Macy invests it with a real soulful melancholy. On hand to play the manipulative and quite horrid father is the always excellent Donald Sutherland. Like Macy, Sutherland’s approach to the character is a measured one that allows differing sides to emerge; from the seemingly genial and hospitable man to the ruthless and bullying father whose ingratiating manner starts to reveal his choke hold over his son. Neve Campbell stunningly stars as the catalyst for Alex’s need for change, exhibiting attitude, feistiness and that something else that is usually missing from other women roles in cinema. John Ritter excels as the shocked therapist whose curious about Alex and equally horrified, while Tracey Ullman gets across suspicion and a genuine feeling of being lost in her own life as her husband becomes distant from her for reasons she is ignorant of.
A compelling crime drama of morality and darkness, Panic makes its mark through the strong sense of purpose, direction and acting that give life to the unexpectedly melancholy rumination on family and crisis.