A brilliantly observant, darkly humorous and immaculately acted movie about an average suburban father in the throes of a midlife crisis, "Panic" bears an vague, off-kilter resemblance to "American Beauty" in style and subject.
Its central character is a meek and neurotic man in his 40s (William H. Macy) whose growing fixation with a sexually conflicted nymph (Neve Campbell) half his age is turning his life upside-down. The two films share a similar dysfunctional domesticity as well, and a crisp but sparse visual elegance with just a pinch of excess color.
But Alex (Macy), the sympathetic anti-hero of "Panic," has a much bigger secret than his newfound temptation for a younger woman. Alex is a hit man -- and he's just not sure he's comfortable in that line of work anymore.
First-time writer-director Henry Bromell creates an utterly original spectacle of severely tweaked normalcy in this deft and surprising, character-driven picture. He begins to plumb Alex's psyche through the character's hesitant visits to a shrink (John Ritter). These therapy sessions open doors to memories of Alex's childhood, dominated by a surly, domineering father (Donald Sutherland) who steered him into "the family business" at a very young age and continues to hold sway over most of his life.
Alex finds little comfort on the psychologist's couch, but he continues to make appointments and root around in his anxieties because every time he's there, he runs into a beautiful, impudent girl named Sarah (Campbell) in the waiting room. They quickly form an antagonistic-romantic friendship, distinguished by the fact that Sarah can see right through her new admirer.
"Are you one of those middle-aged guys who's tired of his marriage and thinks maybe a beautiful young thing could help him out?" she asks point blank on their second encounter, making Alex very nervous because he's asking himself the same thing.
The big complication in "Panic" comes when Alex gets his next assignment from his father: Kill the shrink. Even though he kept his therapy a secret, he soon realizes this is no coincidence, and it begins to tear at his conscience enough that Alex may become emboldened for the first time in his life.
But the plot is largely a vessel here. It's the complexity of the characters and the cast of actors giving uniformly career-topping performances that make this movie so thoroughly compelling.
Macy maintains an awesome balance between being an adoring father and husband, a skilled professional killer, a middle-aged man miserably stuck in a rut, and a acquiescent milksop who has never learned to stand up to his old man. When he and Sutherland are on screen together, Macy shrinks like he's still the 10-year-old boy we see coached into killing his first squirrel with daddy's Walther PPK in one of the film's many enlightening and perfectly tuned flashbacks.
Sutherland is extraordinary as well, giving his character shades of fatherly devotion while subtly playing on his son's engrained apprehension with corrosive, imposingly deliberate emotional detachment and his designs on taking his adolescent grandson under his wing.
The boy is played by young David Dorfman ("Bounce"), who gives as good a performance as any of the adults, playing Alex's intelligent, perceptive son with an inquisitive insightfulness far beyond his years. Some of the movie's best scenes are simple moments as Alex tucks his boy into bed while addressing the kid's endless assault of metaphysical questions, not the least of which is, "Dad, are you OK?"
Campbell's character is much more than just a plot device, and she rises to the occasion with a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a sassy-on-the-outside girl hiding a lot of internal strife that she's smart enough to recognize as personal pollen for father figure types.
And since I haven't fit her in anywhere else, let me just mention Tracey Ullman, who is flawless in a complete departure from screwball comedy as Alex's troubled wife.
"Panic" is in limited release, playing in the San Francisco Bay Area in December 2000 and in other major markets starting in January 2001. Keep an eye out for it. This is one you don't want to miss.
Run time: 88 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 26th April 2001
Distributed by: Roxie Releasing
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 51 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Henry Bromell