The latter half of twentieth century American cinema belonged unequivocally to the crime film. With the west won and industrialization in full swing, Hollywood traded the image of the Stetson-wearing cowboy for the fedora-sporting gangster. Gone were the days of town marshals doing their best to keep the peace with a sense of frontier justice. In their place came the kingpins and “button men” who bucked corrupt systems manifested in city governments and crooked cops. And perhaps no decade capitalized on the zeitgeist’s fascination with these surly characters like the 1990s.
Consider that in a span of just five years, the filmmaking industry churned out such classic capers as Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), Mann’s Heat (1995), Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), and Fincher’s Seven (1995). In the following decade, the industry would shift to focus on “reboots” and “reimaginings” in the wake of major cinematic retoolings of Batman and Bond. The superhero film would come to dominate movie theaters, and, in some ways, the popular imagination would find itself in a far more adolescent state—there seem to be fewer and fewer films made for intelligent adults these days.
But in the year 2000, the late Henry Bromell released a quiet, earnest film that slipped in and out of the public conscience as quietly as a thief in the night. A quirky and smart crime-drama, the feature does for the American crime film what Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) did for the western, being both a heartfelt character study and a complete deconstruction of a genre that other filmmakers had worn out. That film is Panic—and it is a masterpiece.
William H. Macy leads a tremendous cast as Alex, a man with a day job, a wife, and an inquisitively charming son—oh, and he’s also a hitman. This double life is part of the “family business,” headed up by Alex’s domineering and despicable Machiavellian father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), and shrewd mother, Deidre (Barbara Bain). His faithful-but-clueless wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), and young son, Sammy (David Dorfman), know nothing of his moonlight escapades—to anyone else, the three of them are an average nuclear family, albeit one that started raising children a little late in life.
Alex, on the verge of the dreaded midlife crisis, places himself in therapy with Dr. Parks (John Ritter). This sets off a chain of events that leads to Alex coming face-to-face with the past traumas inflicted upon him by his family. Supposedly, Picasso said “In art one must kill the father.” Bromell’s screenplay takes this assertion quite literally, as Alex’s therapeutic decision to leave the family business places him at odds with Michael.
All this family drama simmers alongside a nascent forbidden romance between Alex and Sarah (Neve Campbell), a young woman in her early twenties. Their paths first cross in the waiting room of the therapist’s office. In his midlife malaise, Alex finds himself attracted to Sarah, who is keenly aware of his intentions and even points out the cliché of it all. But it is the top-notch acting of Macy and Campbell and the earnestness of Bromell’s script that keeps the whole affair from feeling too self-conscious—the dissatisfied middle-aged man falling for a younger woman in a fantastical, idealized romance destined to fail is a cliché for a reason.
While the film’s title and this short summary might suggest a violent and chaotic picture, Panic is actually quite tame in execution. This is a measured movie. The pacing is deliberate, the tone quirky, and characters nuanced. Whereas many a lesser feature might revel in the intense killings carried out by Alex, Bromell’s picture is more content to leave these sorts of things implied, and instead focus, by way of example, on the bedtime conversations Alex has with a restless and wildly inquisitive Sammy.
When screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, Panic received near universal acclaim from film critics, with particular praise directed (rightly) toward the quality acting. Yet poor reception from test audiences led executives to limit the film’s release, an asinine decision that the late legendary film critic Roger Ebert reviled in no uncertain terms (Ebert gave the film a perfect four-out-of-four stars). Ultimately, the film brought in less than $800,000 against an estimated $2 million budget—a flop by the standards of a studio looking to make back that budget.
Nevertheless, despite not being a financial success, Panic is a real triumph of sharp filmmaking on a modest budget. Intriguing and self-aware without being predictable, the movie inches toward its inevitable and shocking conclusion, all the while stretching the domestic tension to its breaking point. The characters are so compelling, so well-written and well-acted, that it’s a genuine feat Bromell was able to pack so much texture into film with a meager 88-minute runtime.
To say that Panic is a film ultimately about rage is to shallow out and fundamentally miss the elegance and nuance of the story being told. Rather, this is a film about repression, one that seems to understand what recent studies in cognitive-behavioral therapy have concluded: that anger is frequently a kind of secondary emotion, an emotion incidental to and fueled by other emotions, such as depression and long-standing hurt. Alex is enraged but is too depressed to let himself feel that emotion. He is depressed, but does not understand why he is depressed, or why he should even give vent to his anger in the first place—the sessions with Dr. Parks slowly peel back these layers, of course. Everything leads back to Michael, who haunts the picture from first frame to last.
This is also a film about manipulation that masquerades as love—a truly atrocious kind of evil that should offend us more than it does but doesn’t because—I suspect—it is far more common in the average American household than any of us would like to admit. In Panic, the astoundingly brilliant Donald Sutherland takes the character of Michael and turns him into a monstrous father figure who preys upon the minds and emotions of children—first his own, and then Alex’s—not because he derives some perverse sense of glee from it, but because it is simply who he is. He himself sees nothing wrong with grooming a child into an emotionless killer, it is merely his default setting. It is, very simply, what he does and who he is. There is something so cold, so remote, about Michael, that goodness can never touch him—this is a kind of evil that cannot be redeemed, that can only be stopped by a bullet to the heart.
I have never kept hidden the fact that my relationships with my own parents are the most complicated relationships of my life. There is a sense in which openly admitting such things gives emotions room to breathe. The first eighteen years of my life were spent either suffocating under cloying, nauseating sentimentalism, or throwing rocks at a steel door behind which was locked any shred or trace of genuine emotion—such has been my dichotomized life, shifting between two extremes that frequently masqueraded as love.
Of course, I could segue here into some pithy lite devotional about how Jesus is the great equalizer and became the emotional stability I long sought after—but I will not, because he did not and does not, and that became my first lesson in actualizing faith in day-to-day existence, in coming to God on His terms and not my own. The man who said his burden is light (Matt. 11:30) is the same man who verily, verily said that it is harder for some to enter the kingdom of heaven than others (Matt. 19:24), so let’s not pretend Jesus equalizes the real subjective emotional experiences of everyday life—he doesn’t, and we often must come to him despite how we feel in any given moment. He actually does demand that of us—it is, in fact, the precursor to his statement about his burden being light (Matt. 11:28-29).
That’s why, in part, it’s harder for someone who has lots and lots of stuff, to use Jesus’s example, to enter the kingdom of heaven. The rich young ruler could not detach himself from the stuff that held sway over him (and, by the way, Jesus didn’t step in and do it for him). So, he walks away from Jesus grieving (i.e., “in the feels”)—and Jesus lets him go. “But wait,” I hear you say, “doesn’t Jesus also say that with God all things are possible?” Indeed, he does—but not to the rich young ruler. He says that to his disciples, who have already given up everything to follow him—which is exactly the point that Peter goes on to make in his conversation with Jesus after the rich young ruler is gone.
But, I digress. Suffice to say, Christianity allots for the complex and detailed spectrum of subjective emotional experience. You don’t have to like, for example, the way Jesus does or doesn’t do things to believe in him—that is where faith and hope and trust come into play. I would wager if we asked Abraham how much he enjoyed lifting the knife above Isaac, he might suggest he was little put out with Yahweh in that particular moment. Abraham’s faith, by the way, was not in being stopped at the last second, but in God’s power to resurrect the dead—as far as Abraham knew in the moment, that knife was going to fall (Heb. 11:19). Again, Christianity is not a one-size-fits-all emotional straitjacket; it allows for the spectrum of real human emotional experience to be exercised in the context of faith.
Panic is a film about that spectrum. With a box office return of less than $1 million, chances are, it’s one of the best films you’ve never heard of or seen. Watching Alex navigate the inner workings of his complicated emotional life is downright therapeutic, and the final confrontation between father and son is both cathartic and haunting. It is unfortunate Panic was a misfire with audiences in its day, considering that Bromell’s film hits every target it sets up for itself. But now, a quarter century later, with the increasing prevalence of depression and concern for mental health nationwide, perhaps the film is primed for rediscovery.