Back in the early days of the millennium when everybody was in love with quirk, Panic was the indie darling that all the critics were hot and bothered about. Since I consider myself a reasonably discerning moviegoer, I attempted to give it a go.

I had to bail out. I didn’t get it.

The other night I was searching for something to watch and there it was. I was in the mood for a comedy and it was billed as such. So I gave it another try. This time I made it through the whole film…

I still didn’t get it. And that bothers me. I pride myself on getting it. (Hey I got The Killing of a Sacred Deer so…)

By and large, late director Henry Bromell’s (award winning writer of Showtime’s Homeland) film, plays more like an off kilter family drama. Seriously, I would consider The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more of a comedy, but that’s just me.

In Panic head of household Alex (William H. Macy) is in a perpetual funk. His marriage has lost its spark. He has zero job satisfaction and, though he’s in his mid forties, he’s still under his parents thumb. That’s because he works for the family business and his dad (Donald Sutherland, playing the smart aleck as usual) is a genuine control freak. Plus the family business is kind of a mom & pop (and son) Murder, Inc. That’s right, they’re hitmen. (Not Alex’s mom. She’s dad’s support system, but she knows everything.)

There is one sunny exception to Alex’s emotionally spartan life: his son Sammy (David Dorfman). Sammy is a cute, precocious five to six-year-old. If this sounds a bit ho-hum, seen-it-about-a-hundred-times already, wait up a second…

In Panic David Dorfman gives one of the top ten, all time great, cinematic kid performances. I was awed and delighted by his interpretation, his quizzical expressions and, above all, his timing. The scenes where he and Alex lie in bed discussing the issues of the day, some quite philosophical, but always through the filter of innocence are life affirming and offer a simultaneous lifeline to Alex’s character and to the movie. Just about every parent will recognize the way Sammy touches Alex’s face when he asks him, “Dad are you alright? You look like there’s a lot on your mind.” It’s pure. And yes, it’s funny.

Alex seeks more joy. To that end he consults a psychotherapist (John Ritter). There’s just one problem. Alex’s dad finds out. He doesn’t like the idea of Alex giving up family business secrets to anyone. All things considered, I get his point. He’s still an asshole though. The part where he berates Sammy over spilled glue hammers this home.

Then one day Alex gets a manila folder with–dun dun dun– his psychotherapist’s picture in it. Therein lies the conflict.

Later, after Alex has stalled out on the hit, (he doesn’t want to do it) his dad takes Sammy on a squirrel shooting outing. This is the preliminary stages of hitman training. Alex is mortified. And so are we. Therein lies the heart of the conflict.

As I’ve intimated–even put it in the title–Panic is considered a comedy. That’s the thing I don’t get.

Now far be it from me to come across as a know it all…(pause for snickering)… but I understand the ins and outs of black comedy and I presume you do too, so I won’t explain…(pause for relief)…Panic just doesn’t come across as one to me. Yes the aim is to derive humor from the dire circumstances and family dynamic e.g., a condescending patriarchal grandpa, a depressed family man with a very unusual side job, and prim and trim matriarch with a heart of coal (they’re just like us, or people we know, except for the hitman part) but here, at it’s very core, it falls short.

If it was only just about acting, dialogue and cinematography–the opening scene, a homage to noir, with emphasis on geometrical design and forced perspective, is brilliant–Panic would be a sparkling little gem. As a comedy, black or otherwise, it comes across a little lackluster. But then again comedy is the most subjective of all genres. And admittedly with Bromell’s highly acclaimed indie I just don’t get it.

  • Neve Campbell as Sarah Cassidy, Alex’s love interest (Yeah, I know, I didn’t mention her. She’s solid but I found her character unnecessary.)
  • Tracey Ullman as Martha, Alex’s wife (She’s really good here; very natural.)
  • Barbara Bain as Deidre, Alex’s mother (Besides David Dorfman, hers is the best performance.)
  • Miguel Sandoval as Detective Larson (He’s always good; plus I find him very attractive. Just sayin’.)