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Minus Man (1999)
The Minus Man, writer-director Hampton Fanchers
low-budget allegory about the double-edged nature of innocence, is so in love with its
enigmatic air that theres no there there.
which revolves around what happens when Vann (Owen Wilson), a likable, scrawny drifter
with a penchant for poisoning strangers, wanders into a small coastal town is
superficially patterned after Jim Thompson novels such as The Killer
Inside Me and Pop. 1280.
But Thompsons pulp is straightforward, and we understand why his small and grimy
protagonists resort to murder it makes them feel potent and justified for the first
time in their lives, if only on psychotic terms. The Minus Man, on the other hand,
is an arty Rorschach test that prides itself on not standing for anything.
Early on its
implied that Vanns murders may spring from a twisted brand of altruism, that
hes an Angel of Death who supplies a painless passing for the emotionally maimed,
such as the slatternly junkie (singer Sheryl Crow, in her film debut) he meets in the
opening scene. Vanns method of extermination poison administered via a flask
of amaretto makes the young woman simply drop off to sleep, and he disposes of her
body with an almost ritualistic tenderness. But the worst thing that can be said about
Vanns next victim, a high-school football star with a promising future, is that
hes somewhat dull and inarticulate. Its easy at this point to suspect that
generalized complacency may be Vanns real target, for The Minus Man is
riddled with sub-Lynchian shots of suburban bric-a-brac: birdhouses, lawn ornaments, water
sprinklers. But when Vann selects as his final victim a man who has the simple misfortune
of sitting near him in a diner, the film acknowledges the change in his modus operandi
without ever speculating on its causes or ramifications.
The Minus Man is a crazy
quilt of other movies. Bits of Raising Arizona,Yojimbo,
Velvet pop up here and there, but its true forebear is Badlands.
Vanns voiceover narration aspires to the emotionally primitive note of Sissy
Spaceks narration in Terrence Malicks great film, and like Kit (Badlands
main character), Vann views the consequences of his murderous actions through a
media-based sensibility. In a series of ongoing fantasies inside Vanns head, he is
grilled by two cops (Dwight Yoakum and Dennis Haysbert) who parody all the poses and
attitudes of TV detectives; its a pop-laced imagining thats akin to Kits
wanting his girlfriend to scream out his name when the police shoot him.
God knows Fancher
found himself some able performers. Janeane Garofalo is fine as Ferrin, the lonely
small-town girl who becomes infatuated with Vann after they begin working together in the
local post-office. Garofalo doesnt make Ferrin a drag even though half of her scenes
require her to tote around a whiskey bottle that ought to have PROP written on its label.
When Ferrin rattles off an explanation about the division of labor "A carrier
cant clerk and a clerk cant carry. We dont cross crafts in the post
office" she breaks up laughing at the goofy poetry coming out of her mouth.
Brian Cox and
Mercedes Ruehl also inject some humanity into Fanchers lab experiment. As Doug and
Jane, the couple that takes Vann in, first as a boarder and then as a surrogate son, they
play two people whose marriage has deteriorated into a shambles. Cox (hes mainly
known for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter,
and he more recently played the dean in Rushmore) looks
like a lighter, less monumental version of Albert Finney. (Doug is even the same kind of
bruised lion role that Finney specializes in playing.) As Cox plays him, its utterly
believable that Doug would have darker currents running beneath his maudlin, platitudinous
surface. And despite having only subsistence fare in the way of dialogue, Ruehl
communicates the magnitude of Janes despair with a series of telegraphic gestures,
as when she pinches off her own throat with the web of her hand while talking to Vann
about her marriage.
fans dont have much reason for cheer. Wilson usually scores with a gleaming-eye
craziness that threatens to upend whatever situation hes in, but the keynote of
Vanns character is his blank-slate quality and outwardly normal appearance. The
Minus Man never makes clear what it is about Vann that so disarms the other characters
its certainly nothing in his dialogue, which is a series of vanilla-flavored
pleasantries. Anyone in real life who combined Wilsons chipped, eroded features with
Vanns bland secretiveness would probably give us the creeps.
The Minus Mans
biggest problem is that Vann doesnt give us any real charge, positive or negative.
Whats the point of building a whole movie around such a loaded and overused figure
as a serial killer if you refuse to have any strong feelings about him? Films as varied as
and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer managed to express moral ideas of great
subtlety without reducing their characters to bloodless ciphers. On the contrary, their
characters retained an air of appalling malevolence and fascination despite their careful
detailing. By taking part in their scheming, by participating with them, audiences got
some sense of what made them tick, and unsettling as the experience may have been, it was
a thrill to step into their universe. Perhaps such pursuits are too morbid or low for
Fanchers taste, for Vann never manages to shake the dirt off his metaphorical roots;
he remains a scarecrow clad in ragged ideas. By the films end, it is only the idly
curious who still care what the mini-montages of him washing his pickup truck or
delivering the mail are supposed to be telling us.
The Minus Man shows
signs of heavy tinkering in the editing room an inexplicable scene with Meg Foster
parachutes right through the middle of the movie without disturbing a thing but
its hard to imagine that Fanchers vision would be much different even if it
were delivered to us pure. The films marketing effort, almost certainly courting the
Blair Witch audience, tries to turn vagueness into a
selling point. ("Conversation usually follows," the advertising tagline reads,
but it makes no promises about the length of that conversation.) Despite its trio of
crafted performances, The Minus Man is a self-canceling muddle. Do yourself a favor
and rent Badlands instead.
- Tom Block