(director/writer: Henry Bromell; cinematographer: Jeffry Jur; editor: Lynzee Klingman/Cindy Mollo; cast: William H. Macy (Alex), Donald Sutherland (Michael), Neve Campbell (Sarah), Tracey Ullman (Martha), John Ritter (Dr. Josh Parks), Barbara Bain (Deidre), David Dorfman (Sammy), Miguel Sandoval (Detective); Runtime: 88; Roxie Releasing; 2000)
“It’s a smart film with weighty dialogue.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A solid psychological suspense yarn that plays like a modern noir, but one that comes to a screeching dead-end after its subject matter becomes exhausted and it decides to solve its moral dilemma with bullets instead of with the mind. Alex (Macy) is an emotionless, mild-mannered man of middle-age, who has a nagging psychological problem that is making him feel weird. His family doctor suggests he see a therapist about his midlife crisis. While in the therapist’s waiting room he strikes up a conversation with an outspoken 23-year-old beautician named Sarah (Neve), who is waiting to see another therapist. He becomes strangely attracted to her and feels compelled to see her again. Sarah’s private life is chaotic and much looser than his, as she’s attracted to both men and women. She feels reluctant to get involved with him since he’s a married man who has a 6-year-old son, and thinks that he will probably only use her for sex and dump her when he has no more need for her body.

Alex tells the therapist, Dr. Parks (Ritter), that he has two jobs — a mail-order business run out of his home and he works for his father (Sutherland) as a professional hit man: he kills people. He wants to leave the family business but doesn’t know how to. His father trained him at an early age to be in the ‘murder for hire’ business by killing squirrels as a child. His occupational secret is something that only his creepy mother Deidre (Bain) knows about outside of himself and his father. His wife Martha (Ullman) has no clue, while his precocious son Sammy (Dorfman) is gently handled by him; father and son spend quality time together talking about such things as infinity.

The main plot development occurs when his mother gets it out of him that he’s seeing a shrink, and she tells her hubby. Since one of the rules of the family business is to tell no one else what their business is, the father orders his son’s next contract to be Dr. Parks.

The tension builds for Alex as he wrestles with how to handle dad, how to raise his son, how to reconcile his already weakened sanity if he kills his shrink, and how to handle his feelings for Sarah and his wife.

It’s a smart film with weighty dialogue. It builds in tension to show how unhappy Alex is with his bourgeois life and how unhappy Sarah is with her bohemian lifestyle. His dilemma is the greater, as he is drawn out by his therapist to ask himself questions that he doesn’t want to answer but is now forced to.

What’s compelling is the shaded introspective performance by Macy who ably anchors the film, as he allows us to see who and what he is; and, more importantly what suffering he is now going through. Sutherland’s performance is devilishly demonic, and in his understated call for violence gives voice to a very scary character who gets under our skin. Bain’s complicity with Sutherland adds to the psychological trauma of the Macy character. In contrast to the men, Neve Campbell’s performance is loud and reaching. As a character-driven film, it is handled with a quiet reassurance by first-time director and experienced screenwriter Henry Bromell. Panic plays like an episode for Homicide that has become more invigorated with psychological possibilities. Bromell, the Homicide TV screenwriter, has made his film like the TV episode. It keeps a low profile while taking you on a mind trip laced with bitter irony.