The Minus Man

The Minus Man (1999)

The Minus Man first published by Film4, here slightly altered

Summary: Hampton Fancher’s directorial debut draws sensitive drama, intelligent social comment and chilling performances from the serial killer genre.

Review: “I like the details of a thing, especially if it’s got a purpose.”

So says Vann Siegert (Owen 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 (from the 1990 novel by Lew McCreary, cameoing here as the bearded man in a diner) since Blade Runner, have a resonance that goes beyond their immediate context. For while The Minus Man positively brims with a wealth of 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.

Cleancut, charming and courteous to a fault, Vann also happens to be 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 (Sheryl Crow), Vann wanders into a Pacific Coast town, becoming both tenant and surrogate child to Jane and Doug Durwin (Mercedes Ruehl, Brian Cox) – whose own daughter has long since flown the coop.

With a new job at the post office and a new colleague (Janeane 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 (Dwight Yoakam, Dennis 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 cliché than most, Fancher’s directorial debut is so subtle, so elusive and so 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 blankly 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 – a nightmare in a damaged brain – 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 own most deeply buried feelings and urges. The emptiness at his core is an uncomfortable mirror to all who encounter him, including the viewer, making this film a confronting trip into modern society’s darkest soul, where rootlessness, alienation and anomie have become the norm. For here a sociopathic serial poisoner provides everyone with the nihilistic zero they need in this intelligent and disheartening dramatic thriller for the new Generation Blank.

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 as though born to it, and will leave you wishing that they would both do so more often. Popular singer Crow gamely shoots up in her first big-screen rôle, 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 Cox (Manhunter, L.I.E.), who continues, quietly and unassumingly, to be one of the finest performers alive today. This excellent ensemble, combined with Bobby Bukowski’s crisply hyperreal cinematography, Marco Beltrami’s ‘country concrète’ soundtrack and Fancher’s well-honed script, combine to make The Minus Man a refreshingly original entrant in the otherwise stale serial killer genre.

Verdict: Hampton Fancher’s directorial debut finds in its sociopathic serial poisoner a toxically nihilistic mirror for Generation Blank

Anton Bitel