Panic, written and directed by Henry Bromell, is the latest in a recent series of films about middle-aged white men in the throes of mid-life crises. As tired as this plot may sound—a gangster/family man sees a therapist because of his middle-age “stress”—Bromell imbues the premise with added dimension, raising the bar for similar stories. Known for writing and producing the quality television dramas Homicide: Life on the Street, Northern Exposure, and Chicago Hope, among others, Bromell is a superb craftsman who never lets the bizarre subject of the film get in the way of great storytelling and characterization, letting the tale unfold slowly and carefully. Though the idea of a professional killer who is also a loving suburban husband and father is potentially absurd (and cliched), Bromell never lets the narrative spin into the realm of the ridiculous, as other movies labeled “black comedy” are wont to do (see Suicide Kings).
Black comedy, however, seems an inappropriate label for Panic. Though the film is not without plenty of laughs, they are mainly supplied in sitcom-like scenes involving Alex’s witty six-year-old son, Sammy (David Dorfman), who riffs on such adult subjects as the nature of God and the universe. The comedy gradually gives way to more serious concerns, as Alex’s separate lives and loves begin to converge in ways that threaten his emotional and professional security. Alex, schooled in the techniques of professional killing by his father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), has grown dissatisfied with his marriage, himself, and the family “business,” as hired killing is referred to by Michael and Alex’s mother, Deirdre (Barbara Bain).
Unable to confide in his wife, Martha (Tracy Ullman), who knows nothing about what he does for a living—his pretended occupation is a mail order business specializing in “kitchen gadgets and sexual aids”—Alex seeks the aid of a therapist, Dr. Parks (John Ritter). Alex’s attempts to keep his lives as hit man and family man separate are complicated by his therapy sessions and his budding relationship with 23-year-old, manic bisexual Sarah Cassidy (Neve Campbell at her sexiest). During his first visit to Dr. Parks, Alex meets Sarah in the waiting room. This crucial meeting starts the ball rolling toward the film’s almost inevitable conclusion. Alex enters the waiting room, which resembles a modern deco art gallery, hung with rust-colored, rectangular, Mark Rothko-like compositions, and takes a seat in a cushy leather chair. Sarah, seated next to him, informs him that he needs to push “the button,” a kind of buzzer on the back wall that alerts the therapist to the presence of a patient. Alex rises, pushes the button, and waits. But his passivity and repression are progressively undermined by the seductive, uninhibited Sarah and the internal conflicts awakened by his counseling sessions.
While framed as comedy, Alex’s history and new desire for Sarah are not without consequences. Whether in the midst of moral panic or murder for hire, Alex is calm, perfectly coifed and creased, with only his knitted brows and “sad” eyes (as Sarah describes them) betraying his discomfort. Panic opens with a wide-angle shot of an office complex where Alex commits the only murder shown in the film. The film repeatedly emphasizes geometric architecture and enclosed spaces, confining the characters within their pasts, their choices, and the forces that govern their lives. Dr. Parks’ office is situated in a landscaped, ivied complex. The most striking scenes that don’t take place in these suburban habitats are those in which the sinister Michael (dressed up like the elderly Vito Corleone in straw fedora and cardigan) trains a young Alex, and later Sammy, in the art of killing squirrels with a handgun. Visually, these scenes provide a startling shift from the safety and order of the interiors to the disorder of the woods, and so, intimate that the old crime boss is some kind of child molestor, visiting his evils upon his children.
By contrast, Sarah’s apartment is a mix of colorful knick-knacks, multicolored walls, and vintage suede, camouflage, and fur-trimmed clothing that show her eclectic, bohemian tastes. However, the rigorous geometry that encloses the garden shows up here too. The door to the apartment is composed of square glass panels, painted in dark colors, analogous to the identically square paintings in the waiting room. Sexually open and emotionally vulnerable, Sarah seeks to step beyond the conventional, and in her frustrated desire for Alex, an “off limits” married man, she punches through one of the glass panels, cutting her hand.
Alex’s conflict focuses on a struggle between rigorous order—Michael’s firm control over Alex, Alex’s obligation to his wife—and his resistance to it. This conflict leads to the panic of the film’s title. At the apex of Alex’s crisis is the depraved and verbally abusive Michael. Things become even more complicated for Alex when Michael orders him to kill his therapist, his only sympathetic ear. From here, Alex only becomes more unhinged. In a scene that recalls a similar one in Godfather II, Alex chases a group of children around at his son’s birthday party, wearing a devil costume, driving the point home about the evil that men do haunting the generations to come.
And so, Panic is, in addition to being a dark comedy, also a family drama. The “family business” is as secretive and psychologically damaging as incest or physical abuse, functioning as a metaphor for family abuse in general. The potential fate of this engaging, humorous, and well-crafted film—that it is not being widely released in U.S. theaters—is unfortunate. Bromell’s first feature is as warm and human as his acclaimed tv series, and Artisan’s decision to jettison Panic in favor of more commercial fare is indicative of the ways that the “business,” be it family, commerce, or entertainment (even the supposedly “cutting-edge” independent film industry), routinely orders our lives, despite our best efforts to break out of regulated, geometric structures.