Henry Bromell’s film about a hitman (William H. Macy) in a mid-life crisis received largely positive notices when it premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Yet mere months after that well-received debut, its distributor, Artisan Entertainment, unceremoniously sold off first-run rights to the film to Cinemax. (San Francisco-based Roxie Releasing later snapped up the rights for a post-cable theatrical run, as they did previously with John Dahl’s “Red Rock West.”) So what’s wrong with the picture?
As it turns out, nothing, but Artisan’s decision is somewhat understandable–not for what the film is, but what it isn’t. The main character may be a hitman, but this is no action film nor violent crime yarn. “Panic,” contrary to the suggestion of its title, is a subtle and delibarately paced character study of a man who just happens to be a hired killer. Like many other average guys, Macy’s Alex turns to a therapist (John Ritter) for help with his troubles, namely frustrations with his domestic life with wife Martha (Tracey Ullman); difficulties in doing right by his 6-year-old son Sammy (David Dorfman); an intensifying flirtation with the much younger Sarah (Neve Campbell); and above all an increasing distaste for the work he’s done all his life for his father/agent Michæl (Donald Sutherland). Given the almost mundane nature of Alex’s problems, the hitman angle would seem to be gratuitously sensationalistic, but it adds a layer of danger the film’s central concern: the relationship between Alex and Michæl, which is fleshed out through flashback.
Bromell’s approach to the material mirrors the character of Alex: subdued but with palpable tensions simmering below the surface. Much like Bromell’s direction, Macy’s performance is superbly modulated and quietly touching; the rest of the cast also give understated yet powerful turns. Particularly disarming is the work of the young Dorfman, who is cute without being cloying; that said, the character of Sammy is the key weakness in Bromell’s script–he’s a bit too precocious and profound for his age. Nonetheless, that is but one flaw in a worthy film that’s well worth seeking out.