Alex (William H. Macy) is a hired killer unlike any you've seen before. He's a sad, shambly suburbanite who doesn't kill out of bloodlust, or even for the money. He kills because it's the family business, and he can't bring himself to tell his jolly, slithery old dad (Donald Sutherland) that he wants out. Alex loves his capable if unglamorous spouse (Tracey Ullman), and he does all he can not to let her know that their marriage is falling apart. He's drowning in middle-aged angst, until the day he meets Sarah (Neve Campbell), a ravishing young lady who is less than half his age but has already managed to become almost as screwed-up as he is.
Panic begins with a familiar scene to anybody who has seen The Sopranos: a miserable professional killer goes to a shrink, where he pours out his soul as the incredulous, horrified doctor listens. Having never seen The Sopranos, I can't say if the series lives up to the endless praise lavished upon it by the critics. I can say that it would have to be damn impressive indeed to trump Panic, a marvelous little picture that deserves far better than it's going to get.
The film was completed in 2000 (on an astonishingly scant budget of $2.5 million) and has since followed a tortuous path on its way to theaters. Artisan, the film's original distributor, gave it one test screening for a group of teenage Campbell fans at a suburban mall. Predictably enough, the kids hated it (one can imagine their horror at the idea of the hottie from Scream getting busy with the old guy from Boogie Nights), and Artisan promptly cut its losses and sold the film straight to cable. Fortunately, director Henry Bromell screened Panic at Sundance, where it garnered critical raves, and the rights were eventually picked up by Roxie Releasing, a company with better taste than Artisan but unfortunately little of that company's clout or capital. The film is now very gradually making its way across the country, enriching the lives of the few who are lucky enough to see it.
The performances are excellent throughout. While Macy does wonders with the lead, we've seen him be wonderful often enough before that it's no huge shock here. Campbell, on the other hand, is a revelation. This is a raw, sexy and fiercely intelligent performance, surprising indeed coming from an actress who has previously been notable chiefly for her impressive bone structure. Ullman, by contrast, is remarkable for her uncharacteristic subtlety here. The woman has made a career out of shtick and noise, but in Panic, she is drab enough that we can see why Alex has tired of her; but she's also strong, smart and sexy enough that we can see why he's never really stopped loving her. Sutherland is likewise fantastic, creepily compelling as a man whose surface charm masks immeasurable depths of sleaziness.
Bromell has written fiction for The New Yorker and produced quality TV shows such as I'll Fly Away and Homicide: Life on the Street, and while his debut film works expertly in cinematic terms (especially given the laughable budget), it also has the intensity and precision of the best TV and the careful observation of a good short story. This is a film in which you can never guess what's going to happen next, but after it happens, you can't imagine it happening any other way.
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Panic was written and directed by Henry Bromell; produced by Matt Cooper; and stars William H. Macy, Tracey Ullman, Neve Campbell and Donald Sutherland. Now playing at Edwards Town Center, Costa Mesa.