A portrait of the serial killer as beaming cipher, “The Minus Man” is the kind of muted, anything-but-obvious psychological thriller Hitchcock would have loved. Owen Wilson leaves an indelible impression as Vann, a Canadian drifter whose M.O. combines winning smile, pleasantly dim manner and a flask of poison-laced Armaretto. While obviously not for the “Scream” brigade, pic is compelling and creepy enough to become a sleeper on the art-house circuit, provided handlers mine strong reviews and inevitable word-of-mouth. Rocker Sheryl Crow in a gutsy film debut will also boost B.O.
Working from Lew McCreary’s 1990 novel of the same title, vet-scribe-turned-helmer Hampton Fancher has come up with an assured blend of Camus and Hitch’s small-town classic, “Shadow of a Doubt.” Wilson’s Vann sidesteps easy categorization by showing little outward emotion. This guy doesn’t kill for revenge or perverse kicks. Like the character in an existential mystery, Vann meditates (in voice-over) on comic fallout from his actions. By killing, upending the status quo, his life takes on significance. Vann takes solace (never delight) in fact that he holds all the cards; one word from him on where the latest victim is buried would forever change loved ones’ lives.
Pic opens with harmless-seeming Vann heading out on the highway, where he finds an asthmatic junkie (Crow) screaming to be put out of her misery. Vann obliges. Crimes to come play out as variations on this opening murder: Vann’s victims cry out for intercession. All he has to do is patiently wait and listen for the next victim to announce him – or herself.
And many do, in the deceptively cozy seaside-town setting. Vann takes a room with unhappily wed Doug and Jane (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl), who come to think of him as a surrogate child. Surface-blustery Doug goes a step further, making Vann his latenight confidante and finding him a job at the post office. Given stereotyping of postal workers in recent years, latter development is certain to bring titters. Laughs, however, are strictly intentional as the meticulous Vann observes similarities between how he and postal carriers secretly insinuate themselves into quietly desperate lives.
Once ensconced in pretty small-town berg, Vann again allows fate to select his next victim, which will include a reluctant high school football hero (Eric Mablus) and a disgruntled restaurant patron. Blackouts, increasingly vivid daydreams (of police interrogators) and a one-sided relationship with a postal clerk (Janeane Garofalo) suggest Vann’s days as a successful serial killer are numbered. But then fate again steps in to clear the way.
Meticulously orchestrated by Fancher, pic builds to near-unbearable crescendo as the extent of his landlords’ personal problems becomes clear. Dynamite fadeout is the stuff of classic Hitchcock-Roald Dahl twist endings.
Acting across the board is topnotch, with Wilson and Cox excelling as unlikely buds. Wilson accomplishes the near impossible by creating a psychopath you want to cradle. Think Ricky Nelson in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” and you’ll have some idea of his incongruous appeal. Brit thesp Cox, who once played a serial killer himself (Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter”), is terrific as the self-abusive landlord whose speech is peppered with colorful metaphors.
Garofalo and Ruehl lend strong support as unsuspecting women in Vann’s life; Dennis Haysbert and C&W star Dwight Yoakam are the dogged dream-cops; and rocker Crow, who mainlines in her debut, suggests she has what it takes to be the next big music-to-movies crossover.
Bobby Bukowski’s lensing captures both surface-deep allure of idealized Americana and protagonist’s shifting mental state; and score by Marco Beltrami does double duty by being hometown twangy and downright ominious. All told, “Minus Man” adds up to a big plus for all involved.