Friday September 10, 1999
At the beginning of Hampton Fancher's eerie, quietly compelling "The Minus Man" a young man washes his pickup truck and takes off from a rural area, and after driving a spell, pulls up to a roadside tavern, looking for food, not drink. He amiably gives a lift to an inebriated young woman (Sheryl Crow).
At a rest stop the man returns to his truck to discover the woman shooting up. Undismayed, he offers her a drink from a shiny flask. Soon he's propping up her dead corpse in the restroom, making it look like she's a victim of overdose. We figure at first that the guy just doesn't want to get involved in an OD he really had nothing to do with--until it sinks in that whatever killed her was in that flask.
Vann, the young man (Owen Wilson), turns up in a small city somewhere along the West Coast and rents a room in the comfortable old home of a troubled middle-aged couple, Doug (Brian Cox) and Jane (Mercedes Ruehl), whose lives have been blighted by the fate of their only daughter, who has either disappeared or has died--we're never certain which. The reserved, wary Jane wants to avoid making Vann feel a part of the family, but the lonely Doug can't resist befriending such a likable young man. Doug is soon lining Vann up with a job sorting mail at the post office, where he works. And when Vann learns that the one bright spot in Doug's life is a gifted local athlete, for whom he has high hopes, you can be sure Vann arranges to pass him his fatal flask.
Affable serial killers are not exactly unknown on the screen, but in adapting Lew McCreary's 1990 novel, Fancher, a veteran writer whose credits include "Blade Runner," in his directorial debut, makes "The Minus Man" a fresh and mesmerizing experience. The film goes for a minimalist approach and is all the stronger for it. Whatever forces formed Vann, heredity or environment or a combination of the two, would most likely be depressingly prosaic--brain damage, brutal parenting, etc; what's of interest is that Vann is as compulsive as Peter Lorre's child-killer in Fritz Lang's "M" and is so haunted by being caught he imagines that a pair of tough, smart cops (Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakum) are always catching up with him.
What is of even greater interest is the impact Vann, an All-American guy seemingly at his most benign, has on everyone around him. Relentlessly nice, he is in fact a blank, which enables people to make of him what they will. His accommodating nature and cheerful demeanor brightens Doug and Jane's lives, but will lifting their spirits only serve to let them down with a dangerous thud? And at the post office, Vann gives a pretty co-worker (Janeane Garofalo) no encouragement whatsoever, which has the effect of making her all the more attracted to him.
Ultimately, Vann's impact on these people and others reflects their loneliness, and in some instances, outright desperation. Can it be that Vann embodies such longing himself in its most extreme form, welling up from some dark, destructive region of his being?
In any event, "The Minus Man," which has a simple, seductively flowing style, gives its cast plenty to work with, especially Cox, who makes Doug an appealing, idiosyncratic man with a gnawing neediness that gives way at times to self-inflicted pain. It's only three years since Wilson came to attention with Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket," which he co-wrote, yet he carries off this most enigmatic of protagonists with nary a misstep.
"The Minus Man," flawlessly photographed by Bobby Bukowski, fresh off "Arlington Road," has its moments of humor--it would not be nearly as persuasive if it didn't--but it is above all such an unsettling experience you find yourself still taking it all in well after the lights have gone up.
The Minus Man, 1999. R, for language and a scene of drug use. A Shooting Gallery and Fida Attieh Productions presentation in association with Donald C. Carter. Director Hampton Fancher. Producers David Bushell, Fida Attieh. Executive producers Larry Meistrich, Steve Carlis, Joseph J. DiMartino, Keith Abell. Screenplay Fancher; from the novel by Lew McCreary. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Editor Todd Ramsay. Music Marco Beltrami. Costumes Kimberly Adams-Galligan. Production designer Andrew Laws. Art director Austin Gorg. Laser Rosenberg. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Owen Wilson as Vann. Janeane Garofalo as Casper. Brian Cox as Doug. Mercedes Ruehl as Jane.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times