Killer on the couch

William H. Macy: You see, Doctor, I whacked a bunch of guys, and now my inner child has been suffering from low self-esteem …

William H. Macy: You see, Doctor, I whacked a bunch of guys, and now my inner child has been suffering from low self-esteem …

Rated 4.0

In Henry Bromell’s quietly haunted film Panic, William H. Macy plays Alex, a nerdy little fellow tiptoeing into psychotherapy. As he sits hunched on his shrink’s couch, wringing his hands and knitting his brows as if he would flinch and cower from a passing hummingbird, he seems like a shoe clerk or an accountant struggling with job stress. Stressed he is, but not from crunching numbers or selling shoes. Alex kills people.

In fact, it’s the family business. As Bromell peels away the layers of Alex’s midlife crisis, we get to know the family: Michael (Donald Sutherland), his bluffly tyrannical father, who began Alex’s job training in childhood by having him pick off squirrels in the fields behind the house; mother Deidre (Barbara Bain), so homey and attentive that it comes as a shock to learn that she introduced Michael to contract killing in the first place. Then there’s Alex’s wife Martha (Tracey Ullman), who is oblivious to his secret life away from her, and their precociously observant son Sammy (David Dorfman).

The last two ingredients of Bromell’s little domestic soup are the outsiders: Alex’s therapist and, halfway through the film, next assigned victim, Dr. Josh Parks (John Ritter, almost unrecognizable behind his trim beard and solemn demeanor); and Sarah, another patient Alex meets in the waiting room, and whose frank sensuality and direct, challenging gaze first interest and ultimately obsess him. As Sarah, Neve Campbell is as blankly beautiful as ever, but this time the blankness seems to mask a wary and damaged soul.

The film’s title suggests something frantic and explosive, while a quick synopsis—“hit man in therapy"—might lead us to expect either a manic farce like Analyze This or the operatic sweep of The Sopranos. But Bromell’s game is deeper than Analyze This and more subdued than The Sopranos. Alex’s panic is the slow knotting of tension, of churning stomach and grinding teeth; when he finally snaps, the moment is climactic but not cataclysmic. Bromell gives us both a bang and a whimper.

The movie that Panic most reminded me of, in fact, was Ordinary People. It might be partly the presence of Donald Sutherland—although God knows his lost and hopeless decency in that film 20 years ago is a far cry from the treacherous monster he plays here. But there is that connection, and Bromell brings out Sutherland’s best performance in years. Sutherland has played so many cardboard villains lately—lip-smacking, leering Snidely Whiplashes in things like Outbreak and The Art of War—that it’s almost a surprise to find the villain so real and three-dimensional this time.

But what brings Ordinary People to mind most of all is the off-handed yet tightly controlled quality of the story—the sheer ordinariness of it. It’s as if Bromell used the killer-on-the-couch concept to get backing for the film, but what he was really intending to go after is the quiet desperation of a man grappling with family skeletons and career burnout. That Alex is a hired killer makes the story a shade more titillating, but it’s not Bromell’s whole point; we only see three shootings (not counting the squirrels), and two of those are flashbacks, one at a subtle distance.

William H. Macy brings a discreet angst to the tortured Alex. It was an inspiration to cast him and Sutherland as son and father, not only for the physical resemblance, but also because his jittery softness plays well against Sutherland’s hard edges and lisping snarl. Bromell paces the film with a stately formalism, but he has a knack for naturalism with actors; even Tracey Ullman’s ostentatious versatility is harnessed securely to the frightened, wounded, resentful woman she plays.

Bromell ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity, with Alex’s canny young son discussing the concept of infinity, saying, “I don’t think anything ever really ends.” On one level we agree, hoping Sammy is right. But some things should end, and Sammy doesn’t know everything that’s been going on around him. On another, less comfortable level, we hope he’s wrong.