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Macy conveys a hitman's midlife crisis in Panic

William H. Macy may embody anxiety and depression better than any other actor working today, as evidenced by his Oscar-nominated performance in Fargo. This can be attributed not only to his skills as a performer but to the heaviness of his features. With the furrows of his brow, his deeply set eyes and mouth, he could almost be a living "emoticon" — one of those e-mail-adorning faces made of punctuation marks, like :-(

In the modest but moving film Panic, he plays a fellow called Alex, who's clearly not a happy man, yet he tells a psychologist in an early scene, "There's nothing wrong with me." He also explains how he has two jobs. One is a mail-order business from the house, providing "lawn ornaments, kitchen gee-gaws, sexual aids — that sort of thing." And the other? He kills people.

Despite Alex's profession as an unlikely assassin, Panic is no thriller and only rarely a black comedy. Instead it's an often-quiet depiction of mid-life crisis and divided loyalties between career, family and the heart.

Alex's father Michael (Donald Sutherland) taught him to shoot squirrels at an early age, and currently he gives Alex the names and photographs of strangers to kill, at the behest of mysterious "clients." Sutherland wears the fedoras and sweaters of a retired Mafia Don, but neither Alex nor the audience gets a sense of any criminal organization beyond father and son. Alex's mother (Barbara Bain) is chillingly blasé about their murderous enterprise, but the particulars are unknown to his wife Martha (Tracey Ullman) and their young son Sammy (David Dorfman).

Uneasy with the concept of counseling, Alex nonetheless begins talking to a therapist (a heavily bearded John Ritter). But he finds more inspiration from Sarah (Neve Campbell), a comely 23-year-old fellow patient he meets in the corporate waiting room. Increasingly attracted to Sarah, steadfastly devoted to his family and chafing at the family business, Alex reaches a moral crossroads when he's assigned to kill someone close to him. Revealing more would spoil the film's most interesting twist (through the trailer plainly gives it away).

With its psychoanalysis scenes, discussions of doctor-patient confidentiality and Oedipal issues on parade, Panic proves immediately reminiscent of a certain HBO series about a certain New Jersey family. But writer-director Henry Bromell depicts criminality with neither street-level realism nor stylish artifice. There's no pungent slang about "whacking people," and apart from a few cool, clinically photographed scenes of hits, most of what we see of the business is Alex lunching with Dad. In a flashback to the son's first killing, Greg Pitts is superbly cast as Macy at the age of 20.

Neither romanticizing nor de-glamorizing Alex's lethal profession, Bromell indicates that if you take away the gunplay, Alex could be caught in any unfulfilling family business: doctor, car dealer, what have you. Directing his first film, Bromell has written award-winning fiction and scripts for such TV series as "Homicide" and "Northern Exposure," and he shows relatively little violence and keeps the plot spare and uncomplicated.

Panic isn't the most apt title, as the film focuses more on sadness and depression. Rarely are the performances showy in this ensemble-driven character study, with Tracy Ullman utterly submerging her British accent and comedic resources. As Martha she effectively maintains a defeated expression — the kind of face that's no longer accustomed to smiling.

Rather than play his usually frosty B-movie authority figures, Sutherland gives Michael a saturnine menace, casually righteous in conversation with the potential of becoming a frightening control freak, as when he gives Sammy a birthday present. Child actor David Dorfman is the find of the film, delivering lines of both childish nonsense and spooky perceptiveness ("You seem to have a lot on your mind lately, Dad"), and precisely conveying that lack of pretense that young children have. His scenes with Macy frequently take place in one shot, with almost no cute close-ups.

However, Ritter can't quite make the therapist credible, as he's written to be both credulous (he believes Alex's job description more readily than most people would) and oddly confrontational: "Liar, liar, tongue's on fire," he scolds Alex at one point. And while Campbell spunkily portrays Sarah's free-spirited ways and unbound sexuality, she remains at the periphery of the story. We see several scenes with her apart from Alex — talking to her shrink, seducing young hotties of either gender — priming us to expect her to take a more significant role than she ends up having. It's almost as if those scenes were shot simply to give the film more commercial sizzle.

A film as quiet and life-sized as this one deserves a forceful resolution, but Panic ends on a note that seems inevitable but not completely satisfying, as if Bromell took the easiest route to bring the story to a tidy end. Still, Macy provides an indelible portrait of middle-aged despair, even though, with his deadpan consternation, panic is the last thing his face betrays.??