I have only seen William H. Macy, the star of Panic, in two previous films that I am aware of. Although with the man’s extraordinary ability to play low-key characters without drawing undue attention to himself, I might be wrong, and might have actually seen Macy in numerous appearances in bit or supporting parts. Macy has the kind of fact that is so subdued, that is so undistinguished at first glance, that it is easy to not memorize his face. Although, since his performance in the Coens’ brothers Fargo, his face is so ingrained in my head that he is now an instantly recognizable actor.
Panic is about Macy’s Alex, a confused 40-something with a wife and child (the wife is played by Tracey Ullman, who delivers a nice performance without also drawing attention to herself, and a newcomer who looks like a natural at the acting game plays the son). Alex is at a crossroads in his life. You could call it a mid-life crisis, but as Alex would tell you, he’s not middle-aged just yet. And oh, Alex is also a hitman, and his father is his boss. Worst, his mother knows about it and endorses the profession. In fact, the only member of Alex’s family who doesn’t know about “the family business” is his wife Martha and his 6-year old son Sammy, but that’s going to change if Alex’s father has his way.
What happens to movie hitmen with mid-life crisis? They go to the shrink, of course, and this is perhaps the only clich’ plot point in Panic. In one surprising plot twist, Alex’s father Michael (the equally suave and evil Donald Sutherland) commits Alex to taking out his own shrink. Alex balks. He’s already going through doubts about his profession, and the prospect of killing his shrink only makes him even more doubtful about the path he’s taken in life.
This was not what Michael had planned. In Michael’s world, kids do what they’re told and anyone who gets in the way has to be taken out. Unfortunately for Michael, Alex has been seeing a doorway into a new life. That shining light comes in the form of 23-year old Sarah (Neve Campbell), a fellow patient at the shrink office.
Let me confess to not being the biggest fan of Ms. Campbell. I have never really found her acting to be superior to other 20-somethings of her stripe, and she has never distinguished herself as a real actor in my eyes. After starring roles in Scream and the TV series Party of Five before that, Ms. Campbell has always been a maybe-maybe not actor in my book. I’ve never really given her much thought as an actress. Having said all that, Neve Campbell has made a fan out of me. She has proven herself as a real-life, blood-and-guts actress, and I feel like a fool for not having seen the intelligent glint in her eyes and the passion in her dialogue deliveries years ago.
First-time director Henry Bromell should be congratulated on a superb movie. He has crafted a brilliant film and managed to merge various genres to make what could have been a clich’ and derivative piece (how many movies about hitman seeing a shrink have come out in recent years? Answer: a bunch.), but has not. Instead, with a combination of sure and quiet directing that allows his actors to act and the situation to evolve rather than force it to, Bromell has made a fine first feature. The movie looks slick without costing a lot, and the substance certainly overflows. Even the quiet, almost painfully quiet, moments crackle with energy.
Panic as a whole is so understated, so subdued, and so underneath the surface that it is terrifyingly disturbing. Bromell shows Alex’s training at his father’s hands with flashbacks that are effortless and never takes away from the present situation. Macy’s performance is just outstanding. Even Ullman, who I have never been a fan of, does a fine job, never once reminding us that she used to be a comedian. Equally good is Barbara Bain as Deidre, Alex’s mother, who may be just as evil and conniving as her husband, perhaps more since she has her equally evil husband totally under her palm.
Panic seems like a retread of another tired Hitman Movie, but it proves itself to be so much more.
Henry Bromell (director) / Henry Bromell (screenplay)
CAST: William H. Macy …. Alex
John Ritter …. Doctor Josh Parks
Neve Campbell …. Sarah Cassidy
Donald Sutherland …. Michael