Running on Empty

Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

“Once when I was young I was lying in the grass and a spider crawled in my ear…and it crawled out again. Nobody home.” – Vann Siegert

The depiction of serial killers in movies tends to be unconditionally violent, horrific and sensationalized when you’re dealing with real and fictitious murderers like Son of Sam, The Boston Strangler, John Wayne Gacy and Hannibal Lecter. But Vann Siegert, the protagonist of The Minus Man (Hampton Fancher’s 1999 movie adaptation based on the 1991 Lew McCreary novel), doesn’t fit the standard serial killer profile. With his boyish charm, personable manner and disarming sense of humor, you’d never suspect on first impressions that he is a dangerous sociopath. But not dangerous in the predictable way. Instead of indulging in various forms of cruelty like mutilation, torture or rape, Vann is non-violent in his methods. He likes to dispatch his victims, both women and men, with amaretto, spiked with a lethal poison derived from a rare plant fungus. And why does he do this? Vann doesn’t always know the reasons himself but it has something to do with his search for meaning in the universe. It’s as if he’s an alien from another galaxy trying to kindly correct imperfect human behavior.   

The Minus ManUnlike any other serial killer portrait produced by a Hollywood studio, The Minus Man is alternately lyrical, melancholy, and slyly subversive in its intimate depiction of small town life seen through the eyes of a newly arrived visitor. Think Shadow of a Doubt told from Joseph Cotten’s viewpoint….except much stranger. Slowly paced but mesmerizing in its pursuit of the odd detail, the film vanished without a trace from movie theaters almost immediately upon its release.

Part of the problem might have been the below pre-release teaser which showed a couple leaving a screening of the film and arguing about it for hours via a series of dissolves set to incongruous banjo music:
Guy: It’s like the Heart of Darkness meets Gilligan’s Island.
Girl: C’mon, inside he loved these people. There’s a part of him that cared.

…and so on until the girl looks at her date’s watch and dashes off without an explanation. She’s late for her lifeguard duties at an indoor pool and when she arrives, she sees two lifeless bodies floating in the water. The trailer ends with the text: Careful, you can talk about it for hours.

The odd thing about this lo-fi approach is that it makes perfect sense AFTER you’re seen The Minus Man but it conveys little of the film’s compelling tonal shifts, evocative atmosphere or unsettling storyline (no clips from the movie are shown) to audiences who knew nothing about the title. You have to give the marketing folks credit for originality but they have to share the blame for the boxoffice disconnect as well. Obviously they were charged with an almost impossible task because the film is simply too offbeat, intelligent and idiosyncratic to appeal to a mass audience.

The official film trailer, on the other hand, plays it up as a thriller and is peppered with enough spoilers to kill any mystique it might have had. There is that amazing, one-of-a-kind cast. That should have generated some buzz. Owen Wilson was a rising star at the time and the supporting players were an inspired mix of seasoned character actors (Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, Dennis Haysbert) and performers with cult followings (Janeane Garofalo, Dwight Yoakam, Meg Foster). There was also the curiosity value of seeing singer Sheryl Crow in her dramatic film debut. Yet, despite some excellent reviews from such major critics as Andrew Sarris and Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times, The Minus Man failed to attract audiences.

Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Maybe the turnoff was Owen Wilson in the title role. Is it possible that Wilson’s fans simply refused to accept him as a serial killer or had no interest in seeing him in such a part? I think this might be one of the finest performances he’s given. Everything that makes Wilson so spontaneously funny and appealing in films like Bottle Rocket, Meet the Parents and Zoolander is off kilter here; all of his endearing traits suddenly become suspect and affected in this portrayal. That open, unselfconscious smile becomes a frozen clinched-teeth grin. The eyes squint in puzzlement or apprehension, not amusement. And Wilson’s attempts to socialize often seem rehearsed like his anecdote about the spider or result in supremely weird responses to questions like why he doesn’t like lakes: “Lakes are like stepping into someone else’s underwear.” What? The fact that so few of the people he encounters pick up on these things suggests that everyone is guilty of self-absorption…and a major reason why the more cunning serial killers evade detection for so long. [Spoilers ahead]

Sheryl Crow & Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Sheryl Crow & Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Told from Vann’s point of view and occasionally narrated by him in voiceover, the film offers no backstory from the get-go. We know next to nothing about Vann when he first stops at a bar and hooks up with a down-and-out drug addict named Casper (Crow) who becomes his first victim. There are indications that Vann might think his actions are benevolent, especially in the case of people like Casper who seem bent on self-destruction anyway. “I’ve never done anything violent to anybody,” Vann muses. “Just the minimum that was necessary. No fear, no pain. They just go to sleep. But after it’s done, there’s no going back. No second choice. If I made a mistake, I’ll pay for it.”  The Minus Man

It’s quite possible that Vann sometimes sees himself as some angel of mercy who is putting tormented people out of their misery like the purpose-driven, homicidal aunts of Arsenic and Old Lace. Like that popular farce, The Minus Man has its moments of black comedy but the overall impression is one of existential angst. “You don’t always chose what you do. Sometimes what you do choses you.”

Mercedes Ruehl & Brian Cox in The Minus Man (1999)

Mercedes Ruehl & Brian Cox in The Minus Man (1999)

A sleepy little town on the Pacific Northwest coast becomes the setting for Vann’s new adventure (the novel was set in the fictitious town of Bledsoe, Massachusetts). He finds a room for rent in the home of Jane and Doug, a miserable married couple, and soon finds part-time work at the post office which helps ground him in routine. People seem drawn to Vann because he’s friendly, non-judgmental and, most of all, a good listener. “I feel like a light in the dark. They come to me like moths because I shine.” His presence in town brings out a confessional nature in the most needy people in the community, most of whom seem to be projecting onto Vann what they want him to be. For Jane and Doug, the new boarder provides a welcome distraction from their dysfunctional marriage and feelings of grief over their absent daughter (Is she dead? A runaway from home? Or did she move away and cut off all communication from them?).

Brian Cox (left) in The Minus Man (1999)

Brian Cox (left) in The Minus Man (1999)

Doug, in particular, seems to derive his only happiness from taking a paternal interest in Vann’s life and living through the athletic victories of Gene, the high school football star. In a drunken moment, Doug drops the mask and says, “I’m not so well off as I act. My life’s not that hot. If it wasn’t for Gene there, they’d be no hope, none at all.” But Vann has already sized up Doug, revealing in voiceover, “I take the natural momentum of a person and draw it toward me. The most important part about understanding someone is knowing whether they can hurt you or not. Doug can’t hurt anybody. Not as he is.” But Vann is no psychologist and Doug turns out to have a dark side no one could have suspected.

Janeane Garofalo & Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Janeane Garofalo & Owen Wilson in The Minus Man (1999)

Ferrin, the desperately lonely postal worker who befriends Vann, is another needy soul who sees the new stranger in town as a potential boyfriend. Things don’t pan out that way but their awkward, on-and-off relationship might be the closest Vann comes to making a genuine human connection. Ironically, the only people who really seem to “get” Vann exist in his subconscious and only appear during his occasional blackouts. Are these two detectives (Yoakam and Haysbert) paranoid hallucinations, pursuers from his past or prophetic representatives of Vann’s impending capture? It’s never spelled out – nothing is, it’s part of the film’s appeal – but it does provide some absurdist humor at Vann’s expense. In one of the weirder, David Lynch-like moments, Vann tells the detectives, “I’ve got seven expressions but I’ll show you two of them if you want to see ’em.” With that, he does a facial contortion of silent rage, then turns sideways and repeats it in profile, causing Yoakum to say with dry sarcasm, “That’s not bad except number two looks an awful lot like number one.” According to McCreary, the book’s author, the two detectives were manifestations of Vann’s conscience to “let him know he’s flying a little close to the flame.”

Dwight Yoakum & Dennis Haysbert in The Minus Man (1999)

Dwight Yoakum & Dennis Haysbert in The Minus Man (1999)

Director Hampton Fancher, who also adapted the screenplay from McCreary’s novel, draws the viewer slowly into Vann’s private world and rarely takes a false step. The one minor exception is a music video-like sequence of Vann and Ferrin enjoying a day at the beach which is out of synch with the rest of the film but mercifully brief.

Director Hampton Fancher, The Minus Man (1999)

Director Hampton Fancher, The Minus Man (1999)

In an interview, Fancher made a telling comment about Vann’s character describing him as “a cross between Psycho‘s Norman Bates, Melville’s Billy Budd and Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner.” He also emphasized that Vann “is true innocence, true goodness, he’s an angel. But he embodies also a dark thing that he can’t control; it controls him at times. I think that’s the story of mankind.” Fancher’s cinematic approach to The Minus Man also reflects the influence of The Ladykillers, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and other non-traditional approaches to the crime genre.

While Wilson clearly deserved kudos and critical acclaim for his performance, the supporting cast of The Minus Man is uniformly excellent throughout with Garofalo, Cox and Ruehl adding great shading and depth to characters that might have become stereotypes in the hands of lesser actors. There are also plenty of familiar faces on display such as John Carroll Lynch as the bartender in the opening scene (he was one of the prime suspects in David Fincher’s Zodiac) and Meg Foster, who has a wonderfully bizarre cameo as a painter who lures Vann to her home so she can sketch him. Vann’s psychic vibe tells him she is even stranger than he is – you can tell that by her grotesque paintings – and he flees her house. As for Sheryl Crow, her brief appearance as a broken down junkie is too low key to determine if she has any genuine acting talent or not. And you have to wonder what attracted her to such a small, unglamorous part for her dramatic debut. Maybe it was just the opportunity to work with Wilson and be involved in such an offbeat independent venture. The fact that she hasn’t pursued serious dramatic roles since The Minus Man suggests that this was just an experiment or a lark.

Meg Foster in The Minus Man (1999)

Meg Foster in The Minus Man (1999)

According to Fancher, he had to cut forty-five minutes out of The Minus Man though I think the current 111 minute version is almost perfect and grows richer with each viewing. To date, The Minus Man remains Fancher’s only directorial effort. He is best known among sci-fi fans for co-authoring the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) but people born before 1960 know him as an actor. Fancher appeared in countless TV shows between 1959 and 1978 and had a handful of memorable supporting movie roles in Parrish (1961), Rome Adventure (1962) and The Other Side of the Mountain (1975). His other claim to fame is his brief marriage to Sue Lyon (1963-1965) shortly after the release of Lolita (1962). Fancher was the first of her five husbands.

Sue Lyon & Hampton Fancher

Sue Lyon & Hampton Fancher

Not all critics were favorably disposed toward The Minus Man when it was released in 1999. Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a half-baked disappointment” that “never flies, never comes close to meeting its own expectations.” Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club wrote, “The Minus Man leaves so many questions hanging in the air that its strangeness ends up more intriguing then substantive.” And Stephen Holden of The New York Times said the film “takes such pains to avoid narrative and verbal cliches and anything that could remotely be construed as sentimental or romantic that it feels curiously flat…the movie is too stripped of feeling (beyond a lurking sense of imminent doom) to be terribly engaging.”

Owen Wilson & Janeane Garofalo in The Minus Man (1999)

Owen Wilson & Janeane Garofalo in The Minus Man (1999)

Ok, so they obviously saw a different movie than I did. But I’m not alone in my high regard for the movie. Glenn Lovell of Variety called it a “muted, anything-but-obvious psychological thriller Hitchcock would have loved…compelling and creepy enough to become a sleeper on the art-house circuit…Dynamite fadeout is the stuff of classic Hitchcock-Roald Dahl twist endings.” Roger Ebert revised his opinion from his original review to call it “a psychological thriller of uncommon power maybe because it’s so quiet and devious.” Andrew Sarris wrote, “A surging undercurrent of black comedy drives us out to sea without ever breaking to the surface with glib psychological or sociological explanations.” And Kevin Thomas’s review for the Los Angeles Times might have been the inspiration for The Minus Man‘s unusual pre-release trailer: “It is above all such an unsettling experience you find yourself still taking it all in well after the lights have gone up.”The Minus ManOther websites of interest:

http://www.salon.com/1999/10/02/fancher/
http://www.uncleanarts.com/writing/interviews/hampton-fancher.htm
http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/m/minusman.htm
http://variety.com/1999/film/reviews/minus-man-1200456386/
http://www.newenglandfilm.com/news/archives/99august/mcceary.htm
http://chuckpalahniuk.net/forum/1000031/the-minus-man
http://www.popmatters.com/feature/fancher-hampton/

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