Alex, a hit man, tries to get out of the family business, but his father won't let him do so. While seeking the help of a therapist, he meets a sexually charged 23-year-old woman with whom he falls in love.
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Alex, a sad-eyed mournful man, goes into psychotherapy: he discloses he's a hit man. He also tells the doctor, after a few sessions, that he's attracted to a young woman he's met in the waiting room. She's Sarah, 23, quick, edgy, and perhaps attracted to him as well. But he's married, the dutiful father of a young precocious boy, so Sarah brushes him off. In flashbacks we see him get his start as a killer, at his father's prompting: it's the family business. Dad gives Alex his next assignment: to kill the therapist. Alex keeps returning to Sarah, calling her, stopping by her apartment, as he decides what to do about the hit, his father, his marriage, and his malaise. Written by
The `banality of evil' has long been a source of fascination for those artists exploring the dark side of human nature. Gloomy houses filled with vengeful spirits or twitching psychos hold less fear for the common man than the sudden discovery that the `people next door,' the PTA member down the street, or the social director for the local church youth group are the true villains who surround us unnoticed, people whose very `normalcy' serves to mask the evil within. For only when the mask is finally ripped off and we at last get to see what we have been living next to all along do we come to realize how very tenuous is our security and safety in this world. What could be scarier than that?
In this category of works, `Panic' emerges as a genuinely chilling, emotionally unsettling psychological thriller, short on gratuitous violence and long on characterization and mood. Writer/director Henry Bromell has fashioned a dark, disturbing tale of a man named Alex (William H. Macy) who seeks the professional help of a therapist played by John Ritter. Alex's problem is a decidedly unique one: it seems that, since he's been a teen, he has served as hit man for his father (Donald Sutherland) whose mysterious, shady `business' apparently calls for the elimination of certain parties at the request of unknown `clients.' Alex is a seemingly good man, devoted to his wife and son, who has somehow found a way to distance himself emotionally and morally from the heinous crimes he commits. Yet, obviously, Alex has arrived at a point of moral reckoning for how else to explain his sudden need to unburden himself to this total stranger? Macy gives a brilliant performance as Alex, showing, in his totally understated reactions to the people and events around him, what it is like to be buttoned up so tight that even with all the mayhem and filial abuse he's experienced in his life he is able to truthfully say `I don't know if I've ever been angry' even at his father who got him into this life in the first place.
What makes `Panic' so unsettling is that it violates all our comforting notions about the ties that bind father to son and family members to each other. Rather than setting a fine moral example for their child, both of Alex's parents, Michael (Donald Sutherland) and Deidre (Barbara Bain), have actually groomed him to become a cold-blooded killer. Yet, life seems to go on in surface ease within the confines of not only that family but Alex's own family as well. Alex keeps the truth hidden from both his wife, Martha (Tracy Ullman) and his 6-year old son, Sammy (David Dorfman), allowing them to function almost as any other normal suburban family.
Yet, Alex has other, perhaps more mundane problems as well. He meets a somewhat disturbed 23-year old fellow patient named Sarah (Neve Campbell) to whom he feels an immediate attraction. Tentatively, these two lost souls grope towards each other, both of them hoping to find in the other that which is lacking in themselves. But in many ways, Alex is actually a man of strong moral character in certain aspects of his life and he agonizes over taking the initial step towards consummating their relationship, knowing it will harm the wife he loves but no longer feels attracted to. Bromell's sophisticated screenplay refuses to spell out every psychological detail for the audience, allowing us to make our own connections, draw our own conclusions and reach our own moral judgments. As director as well, Bromell establishes and maintains a mood of almost heartbreaking melancholy and sadness. Characters rarely speak above a hush; the camera glides slowly along taking in the scene at a leisurely, unhurried pace; and the haunting musical score heightens the strange unreality of the world which these people have come to inhabit, a world that seems to call into question everything we take for granted in the area of morality, ethics and basic common decency.
The performances from every member of the cast (right on down to little David Dorfman) are letter perfect. Each of these fine actors knows exactly the right note to hit in every scene, never cutting against the grain of understated seriousness that Bromell has established.
`Panic' is a small, underrated gem that lingers long in one's memory.
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