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The Minus Man

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 24 September 1999

Directed and written by Hampton Fancher,
 from the novel by Lew McCreary.

 Featuring Owen Wilson, 
Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, 
Janeane Garafolo, Dwight Yoakam, 
Dennis Haysbert, Larry Miller, 
Sheryl Crow.

An odd, odd (did I say odd) portrait of a serial killer set against a backdrop that is plum smack in the middle of white bread, Ozzie and Harriet, America. Interesting enough too, but I prefer a little more bang for my buck and this effort comes up a lesser film, sort of a “so what?” comes to mind as this picture dragged to it’s ambivalent ending nearly two hours from the nowhere from whence it began. It’s not that this is a gory Scream, it’s just a plain wrapper of a psychological horror film.

From the screenwriter of Blade Runner and The Mighty Quinn, not to mention a character actor in numerous 1950s tv western series (probably a good trolling ground if E! Entertainment wants to mystery and scandlize 62-year-old aspiring director Hampton Fancher) comes this disconcerting, sunshine-bright, bird-chirpy film, landing a block short of the Bates Motel. Into a musty roadside bar in the middle of nowhere arrives Vann Siegert, a simple drifter in from Vancouver with a busted nose and a low key personality, his throat dry as he leaves his Ford truck in search of some refreshment, only to find no pizza, no pie, just pickles and some junk and booze addicted doll who calls herself Caspar (her real name’s Laurie). Just as she’s hiding behind a ghostly identity, Vann (who says he’s “Bob”) has his own secrets. Although both strike up limited conversation as they head down the interstate together, at the first rest stop it’s all too clear that Vann has other, more deadly, yet bloodless, intentions lurking beneath his nonchalant façade and the poison-laced Amaretto in his pocket flask.

Blonde-haired and Dennis Hopper eyed Owen Wilson (The Haunting, Armageddon, Bottle Rocket) thus drifts into The Minus Man lacking much of a personality, a plus that seems to attract the ladies (Wilson’s girlfriend Sheryl Crow is the above-mentioned first victim), before leaving them with a more lasting, fatal impression. Director-writer Fancher, who based this work on a 1990 cult crime novel, moves his film along with occasional emotional spurts and dreamy fantasies, narrated by Wilson’s droll, vacuous existential parables that take on subliminal significance (“You don't always choose what you do,” he intones after one murder, “Sometimes what you do chooses you.” Still later he deadpans “The urge erases the path it travels.”).

Vann’s tranquility base eventually lands in a nondescript Pacific coast community, specifically a rented room in the disturbed household of Doug and Jane Derwin (Rushmore’s Brian Cox and Fisher King’s Mercedes Ruehl), a pair with more than a few loose screws upstairs who adopt their boarder as a replacement for their wayward daughter, whose departure appears to have placed a minefield of emotional landmines that explode every few footsteps. Doug puts his grown child’s dirty secret in vague perspective: “Fuck her and the mother she rode in on.” It’s probably no coincidence that Doug finds a job for his new best friend where he works, the Post Office, that mecca for the unhinged.

In a small town where everyone knows everyone and their pet (including Zipcode the cat) and life centers around work, the high school football team, and the local diner, Vann picks his victims at close range (the star varsity player, a disgruntled patron) from amongst these cozy surroundings, with the only authorities hot on his trail (Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert) being brutally tough figments of his own imagination. Despite their intensity, these blackouts act as awkward pacifiers for the charming stranger, while, back in the real world, circumstances (many of them) divert attention away from the real killer. After he becomes a model employee delivering mail, he’s postmarked with cupid’s arrows by mail clerk Ferrin (the always entrancing spitfire Janeane Garafalo, doing a knockout job here), a budding wallflower who drinks hard and pushes her bold affections on the startled Vann, nearly blowing his impulsive circuits and melting his Clark Bars.

Meanwhile family strife between self-flagellating and now near-catatonic Doug and his nervous nell of a wife takes its own unexpected turn, allowing enough deflection from Vann’s uncharacteristic reckless killings (i.e. bunched together in this warm-hearted neighborhood) for him to ponder his future in this faux Norman Rockwell suburb on the edge of the world. The Minus Man isn’t much of a story, but it is one heck of a character study.

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