The Minus Man

September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Owen Wilson’s got beach-blond hair and a toothy, gee-shucks smile, but you’d never confuse the characters he plays with Regular Guys. There’s a deliberateness to his movements (in ”Bottle Rocket” and ”The Haunting”), a little pause before the lips pull back to grin, that implies levels of complexity over simplicity in his responses.

This suggestion of psychological stratification is put to good use in The Minus Man, a determinedly laconic portrait of a serial killer as a nice, bland guy. Vann Siegert is the kind of psychopath about whom neighbors would say ”He was always such a polite young man” while cops dig up the front lawn looking for bodies. Vann drifts from town to town, making no impression; even his preferred method of dispatch requires minimal involvement on his part. To paraphrase poet Mark Strand, wherever Vann is, he is what is missing.

In his directorial debut, Hampton Fancher — best known as the screenwriter of ”Blade Runner” — adapts Lew McCreary’s 1990 cult crime novel with visual style to spare. Mindful of deceptively mild antiheroes from Norman Bates to ”Being There”’s Chauncey Gardiner, Fancher positions Vann in the most everyday, essence-of-America settings and turns up the lighting scheme to golden-warm: at a good ol’ run-down bar; on a scenic highway; and in a pleasant town where he rents a room from anxious Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) and her masochistic husband, Doug (Brian Cox), takes a job at the post office, and attracts the romantic interest of a friendly coworker (Janeane Garofalo, sweetly insecure as a girl pursuing a boy she likes).

What would make someone appear so ”normal” and wreak such random evil? The understated, almost diluted point of ”The Minus Man” is that sometimes nothing adds up; Vann just happens to do terrible things. (Jane and Doug just happen to be troubled.) And even though he provides a distractingly Zen-ish voice-over poetically describing his MO (”I take the natural momentum of a person and draw it towards me”), even though he is haunted by a couple of detectives who appear to be closing in, Vann remains, as one of the cops taunt him, ”a cipher, a zero.”

With no climactic showdown and no comforting revelation of motive or reassuring psychoanalytic diagnosis, the nerve-rattling potential of this sly, paranoia-inducing story may sink in only later: If Vann Siegert can pass for normal, nobody’s safe from monsters.

The Minus Man

111 minutes
Hampton Fancher
Complete Coverage
The Minus Man

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