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  • TBC
  • Drama, Mystery
  • 1999
  • 107 mins

The Minus Man

The Minus Man

Synopsis

Hampton Fancher's directorial debut draws sensitive drama, intelligent social commentary and chilling performances from the serial killer genre

About

"I like the details of a thing, especially if it's got a purpose."

So says Vann Siegert (Wilson) as he examines a sand-speckled pebble that he has found on a beach; and his words, like so many other lines in Hampton Fancher's first screenplay adaptation since Blade Runner, have a resonance that goes beyond their immediate context. For while The Minus Man brims with dispassionately observed details, the film's overall purpose proves to be as beguilingly impenetrable as that of a pebble - or indeed of its stony-hearted protagonist.

Clean-cut, charming and courteous, Vann is an itinerant serial killer, concealing his psychopathic lack of affect beneath an easy smile and bland talk. After poisoning an asthmatic junkie on the road (Crow), Vann wanders into a Pacific Coast town, becoming both tenant and surrogate child to Jane and Doug Durwin (Ruehl and Cox) - whose own daughter has long since flown the coop.

With a new job at the post office and a new colleague (Garofalo's Ferrin) who offers something at least resembling a normal relationship, Vann begins to get comfortable - so comfortable, in fact, that it is not long before he is carelessly breaking his own rules and attracting the alarmed attentions of both the outside authorities and his own inner detectives (Yoakam, Haysbert). Yet as the body count rises, it becomes less and less clear whether Vann is causing or merely reflecting the problems in his adopted community, poisoned long before his arrival.

Even though The Minus Man belongs to a genre more mired in cliche than most, Fancher's directorial debut is so subtle, elusive and ambiguous that it barely conforms to the conventions of the serial killer movie at all.

Vann may get a job sorting and delivering mail, but not once does he 'go postal'. On the contrary, his acts, though murderous, are free from sadism or even blood, utterly unsensationalised, and as subdued as his drawled narration. Like the anti-hero of American Psycho, Vann has regular flights of paranoid fancy (police interrogations that unfold entirely in his head) which, taken together with a range of odd discontinuities (most notably Jane's false description of the room to rent), invite viewers to wonder how much of what they are seeing should be taken at face value, and how much is the mere invention of a disturbed mind that is always split between painstaking martinet and irrational delinquent.

It is not just that Vann's affable charisma hides an unfathomable viciousness, but The Minus Man itself presents monstrousness with an aloof, matter-of-fact cool that in the end proves devilishly difficult to read.

Like Jane's beloved crosswords, this is a film that offers us a series of puzzling blanks, and demands that we fill them in ourselves - supplementing Vann's psychopathy with our most deeply buried feelings and urges. The emptiness at his core finds its dull echo in all who encounter him, reflecting a more widespread sense of rootlessness, alienation and anomie at large in modern society.

The Minus Man resolutely defies expectations, not least in its casting. Wilson and Garofalo are best known as comic actors, but here play deadly serious. Singer Sheryl Crow gamely shoots up in her first big-screen role, and is never less than convincing as Vann's short-lived fellow-traveller. The only actor who comes with no surprises (unlike the character that he plays) is Brian Cox (Manhunter, L.I.E.), who continues, quietly and unassumingly, to be one of the finest performers alive.

This excellent ensemble, combined with Bobby Bukowski's crisply hyperreal cinematography, Marco Beltrami's 'country concrete' soundtrack and Fancher's well-honed script, combine to make The Minus Man a refreshingly original entrant in the otherwise stale serial killer genre.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Sheryl Crow, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, Dennis Haysbert, Mercedes Ruehl, David Warshofsky, Daniel 'Big Black' Rey, Dwight Yoakam, Meg Foster, Brian Cox
  • Director: Hampton Fancher
  • Screen Writer: Hampton Fancher
  • Writer (Book): Lew McCreary
  • Producer: Fida Attieh, David L Bushell
  • Photographer: Bobby Bukowski
  • Composer: Marco Beltrami

In a nutshell

A sociopathic serial poisoner provides everyone with the nihilistic zero they need in this intelligent and disheartening dramatic thriller for Generation Blank.

by Anton Bitel

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