★★ / ★★★★
“Panic,” written and directed by Henry Bromell, is a commendable hybrid of dark comedy and drama, but it falls short of becoming a truly memorable character study of a man named Alex (William H. Macy) who wishes to leave the business of contract killing. Due to certain subplots not being fully explored or ironed out, the final result is only somewhat satisfying though increasingly hollow the longer one ponders about the work in its entirety.
A subplot that works is Alex’ relationship with his parents (Donald Sutherland, Barbara Bain), the two of them being the ones responsible for getting their son into the business. In small doses, we observe Michael and Deidre’s dark sides manifesting to the surface—often surprising because the jolts are almost always triggered by something relatively small. Look closely during the scene where Alex’s son (David Dorfman) is brought over to his grandparents’ home a couple of days after his birthday. A happy occasion like opening presents is turned into a tension-filled tiptoeing on glass.
On the other hand, an example of a subplot that leaves a lot to be desired involves Alex contemplating to have an affair with a woman (Neve Campbell) who is half his age. Though the writing is able hit a few fresh notes in portraying emotional versus physical affair, I never believed that Campbell’s character, as open-minded and as conflicted as she is, would ever be interested in Macy’s character, not even a remote level of friendship. Toward the end, I felt as though perhaps Campbell was miscast, especially during a would-be emotional scene where Alex finally tries to go after what he wants. She appears as though she is acting rather than feeling the moment and reacting to it naturally.
Flashbacks are used sparingly but effectively. Most informative are those that show Alex being trained to kill by his father, at first a small animal at age seven and then a person at age twenty. There is a coldness and a detachment to these scenes and yet there is a lingering sadness to them, too. The first time Alex murders another human being is memorable because within a few seconds we witness a young man cross a line he cannot uncross.
Macy is made for a role like this because he is a master when it comes to portraying characters on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He is able to find many complex layers in the sensitive, depressed, guilt-ridden contract killer without reducing Alex into some sort of sap who kills just because the script requires him to for the sake of telling a story. Macy humanizes the character to such an extent that we are genuinely surprised by his actions when situations push him to do what he must—to hell with the consequences for the time being.
A confident but limited picture, “Panic” is worth seeing at least once especially—or perhaps only by—those on the lookout for characters who exude a lot of intrigue without much effort. I enjoyed that it is a little bit rough around the edges, which separates it from mainstream flicks that tackle a similar subject minus a convincing sense of reality, and Macy in a role that he is born to play.