Apr 11, 2001 at 12:00 am

A hit man having a midlife crisis and seeing a therapist? The basic plot of writer-director Henry Bromell’s feature debut sounds like a bunch of clichés calculatingly cobbled together. So the sparse, elegant, beautifully nuanced Panic is almost a shock. Bromell has created the cinematic equivalent of a masterful short story, where simplicity is a strength and a few insightful glimpses reveal the truth of a person’s life.

Bromell, a veteran writer-producer of some of television’s best shows (“Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Northern Exposure,” “I’ll Fly Away”), anchors his tale by focusing on the stranglehold of family obligation. Alex (William H. Macy) became a killer by following in his father’s footsteps — and both of his domineering parents, Michael (Donald Sutherland) and Diedre (Barbara Bain), consider this coldhearted line of work the family business.

Comfortably married to Martha (Tracey Ullman), Alex unabashedly adores his precocious 6-year-old son, Sammy (David Dorfman). The only moments he’s totally relaxed are during bedtime talks with Sammy, whose quicksilver mind jumps from admiring Beck to contemplating infinity.

In the waiting room, just prior to his first therapy session with the soothing, bearded Josh (John Ritter), Alex meets a live wire, Sarah (Neve Campbell). He instantly feels a charge of electricity and knows before he can articulate it that his life will change.

In addition to an assured, minimalist visual style and a smart script (where comfortable, familiar scenarios are constantly pierced by sharp revelations), the acting in Panic is superb. Campbell, looking like she literally wants to jump out of her own skin, is anchored by the subtle intensity of Macy, whose stone face ripples with emotion. Then there’s Sutherland as a magnificent monster, the Machiavellian paterfamilias who cloaks manipulation as love.

Bromell digs deep into the relationship between fathers and sons, as well as the cycle of abuse, to make Panic more about how to live a life than how to take one.

Opens Friday, April 20, exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].