Minus Man, The (1999)

US / 152 minutes / color / Shooting Gallery, Fida Attieh, Donald C. Carter Dir & Scr: Hampton Fancher Pr: David Bushell, Fida Attieh Story: The Minus Man (1991) by Lew McCreary Cine: Bobby Bukowski Cast: Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, Dwight Yoakam, Dennis Haysbert, Eric Mabius, Sheryl Crow, Lew McCreary.

(The Encyclopedia has a curtailed entry on this movie. However, since The Minus Man is a guilty pleasure of mine, I thought I’d indulge myself by posting here the slightly longer version that I originally wrote.)

A serial-killer movie sans violence, gore, chases, screaming or any of the other customary ingredients, and all the more affecting and memorable for the lack. Bland, guileless-seeming drifter Vann Siegert (Wilson) gives a lift to floozy Laurie “Casper” Bloom (Crow, in a remarkably assured debut performance), encountered at a roadside diner, and later, when she shoots up at a remote rest stop, gives her a swig from his hipflask; the flask contains Amaretto laced with a rare poison, and within moments she’s dead. He arranges her body in the restroom to look as if she’s ODed, afterward making it clear to us in voiceover that she’s far from his first victim but that he has “never done anything violent to anybody, just the minimum that was necessary. No fear, no pain. They just go to sleep.”

At the next town he comes to he takes a room with Jane Derwin (Ruehl) and her mentally unstable postal-worker husband Doug (Cox). Doug rather quickly sees in Vann some sort of replacement for the couple’s teenaged daughter Karen, who some while ago ran away from home; Jane more slowly follows suit. Doug gets Vann a job at the post office, where fresh-faced colleague Ferrin (Garofalo) takes a shine to him. Vann tries to respond to her advances normally but cannot. So instead he poisons local college football hero Gene Panich (Mabius), burying the body at the beach.

Later, at a diner, he slips some of his poison into the drink of a randomly chosen customer (played by McCreary, author of the novel upon which the movie’s based), and this impulsive crime proves a grievous error, for police toxicologists identify the toxin in the man’s body and link the crime to the deaths of Laurie and, when the body’s finally discovered, Gene. Vann feels threatened from all sides, especially when Jane is murdered and the cops, suspecting Doug, move in . . .

Throughout proceedings there are extended voiceovers from Vann as well as hallucinatory encounters between himself and a pair of acerbic cops, Blair (Yoakam) and Graves (Haysbert). These devices have the dual effect of peeling away layers of Vann’s persona, so that we discover much of what makes him tick—although never what drives him to kill—and of somehow getting us on his side: even though we know he’s a sociopath (albeit a gentle one), we come to regard him much as do the people around him, who’re deceived into liking him by his innocuous outward appearance; in a sense, he really is a nice guy . . . it’s just that he has this odd little peccadillo.

Quiet, extraordinarily well made, with strong performances all round, this absorbing movie enjoyed a marketing campaign that focused on the notion that you’d still be talking about the movie hours later; it’s a not unreasonable claim. The Minus Man might be thought unlucky not to have been much among the awards, although it shared the Special Grand Prize of the Jury at Montreal and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a Grand Special Prize at Deauville. Wilson, better known for his comedic roles, shows himself perfectly capable of carrying a deeply thoughtful drama like this one, while Garofalo, Cox and Ruehl likewise offer performances of considerable subtlety and skill.

On Amazon.com: The Minus Man

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