Minus Man, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hampton Fancher's The Minus Man is a methodical, chilling excursion into the mind of a serial killer. And, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, it seeks to explore, not to exploit. Those on a quest for complete understanding won't find it here. The purpose of The Minus Man is not to answer questions and tie up everything into a neat package. This is a character study, not a psychological profile. Yet, based on everything I have read about serial killers ranging from Jack the Ripper to the Son of Sam, Fancher's portrayal is on target.

In most movies, serial killers are faceless villains or foils for the protagonist. Even Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lechter was little more than a suave, intelligent monster. Henry challenged viewers because it presented a story from the serial killer's perspective. Director John McNaugton abandoned the safety of the sane, stable world to take us into Henry's demented pseudo-reality (a place that many movie-goers would prefer not to visit). In The Minus Man, Fancher (the Bladerunner scribe, making his directorial debut) attempts something similar. His intention is not only for us to see things as Vann does, but for us to sympathize with the character. Murder is made to seem neat, painless, and almost insignificant; except for this minor personality quirk, Vann is a nice guy. There's something twisted and broken deep within him, but he is not evil incarnate.

There is a flaw in Fancher's approach, however. He wants us to like Vann. That much is obvious from the way the story is told. In fact, the better we relate to the character, the more conflicted we become - a state that amplifies The Minus Man's effectiveness. But Fancher's cold, clinical directorial style is an impediment to this goal. Every action that Vann takes is viewed with an icy detachment that seems to be at cross-purposes with the film's overall thrust. As a result, we are actively prevented from connecting with the character.

Vann does not see himself as a killer; he's a mailman, or the lodger in a middle-aged couple's room for rent, or the would-be boyfriend of a co-worker. Murder is something he does when the compulsion takes him, but it does not define who he is. He views it with a chilling matter-of-factness. "I never make a plan," he confesses, "It just happens." Owen Wilson 's portrayal is effective because it's disarming. What is it that neighbors always say about a serial killer? "He seemed like such a nice, quiet young man." That's Vann. He's hard-working, courteous, considerate, and meticulous. Yet Wilson occasionally lets us glimpse a sinister undercurrent.

The film takes place in a rural Pacific Northwest town where Vann has settled for a while. He's living in a room rented out by Doug and Jane Derwin (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl). The couple's marriage is on the rocks and they're looking for someone to fill the place of their daughter, who has disappeared (we never find out exactly what happened to her). Vann fits in nicely at the Derwin household, and Doug gets him a job at the post office. There, Vann is pursued by Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo), a shy mail sorter who is attracted to him but is nervous about revealing her feelings. However, even though Vann appears to be an upstanding citizen, he hides a dark secret. A rash of mysterious deaths and disappearances starts soon after arrives.

Although the film presents Vann dispassionately, there are a couple of humanized portrayals. Brian Cox brings depth to the role of Doug, who, in his own way, may be as disturbed as his boarder (later in the film, we get an inkling of just how unsettled he is). Actually, Cox is so good that it's frustrating only to catch glimpses of his character. Doug is a deeply melancholy individual whose placid exterior hides a simmering penchant for violence. Then there's Janeane Garofalo, whose interpretation of Ferrin is touching and credible. She has the body language and mannerisms right for someone who is romantically inexperienced and uncertain about how to proceed with a relationship that she wants.

One thing that doesn't work is Fancher's decision to have Vann constantly harassed by a pair of imaginary police detectives (played by Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakam). These scenes, which are supposed to give us greater insight into how Vann views his crimes, don't accomplish much except to interrupt the film's flow.

The Minus Man is not a comfortable motion picture to sit through. The lack of overt violence and gore deepens the sense of unease. Watching Vann's tale unfold, we should be gripped by revulsion; instead, there's a strange fascination. Like Henry and Lodge Kerrigan's Clean Shaven, The Minus Man takes us into an alien world and strands us there for a little while. This movie may not invite emotional participation, but it gives its audience much to ponder.

Minus Man, The (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1999-09-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1