Early on in "The Minus Man" you're not quite sure what you're seeing. There's a drifter named Vann (Owen Wilson) who lands in a small town. He's a polite, upright joe, but there's something not right about him that's hard to pin down.
He moves into with a tormented couple (Mercedes Ruehl and Brian Cox), who rent him the untouched room that once belonged to their missing (or is she dead?) daughter. He gets a job at the Post Office and is quickly promoted from sorter to carrier based on little more than his queer congeniality. He clumsily romances another postal employee (Janeane Garofalo in the cynicism-free role of an insecure romantic doormat), and just as the movie starts to look like a slice of life/ensemble of oddballs flick, townspeople start disappearing.
No one suspects Vann, of course. At first, not even the audience realizes they should. But Vann, you see, is a serial killer.
Because the story is told from his perspective, it's so matter-of-fact about Vann knocking people off that it feels like little more than an eccentric habit. His madness is dormant most of the time and he's a non-violent murderer. He doesn't shoot people or hack them up, he usually poisons them, and usually on a whim.
There's no shocking moment of narrative revelation, either. In fact, in the first five minutes of the movie, Vann carries a passed out hitchhiker (singer Sheryl Crow) into a rest stop bathroom, then emerges alone, and it doesn't dawn on the audience until much later what must have transpired inside.
This character study approach to a movie about a seemingly common psychopath is the brainchild of "Blade Runner" screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who makes his directorial debut with "The Minus Man," and adapted the screenplay from a book by Lew McCreary.
His restrained style never raises the heart rate, but the entire picture seems slightly unsettling, from the washout lighting Fancher uses in several scenes to the uncomfortably desperate friendship that forms between Vann and his landlord, who has drown in drink his sorrow over whatever it is that happened to his daughter.
But it's Wilson's sly, understated, even empathetic lead performance that keeps the audience off balance, even before we know why we're supposed to be. Giving off a faintly vulnerable Dennis Hopper vibe, even the slow, deliberate way he walks -- as if he's considering the pros and cons of every step -- hints (but only hints) at something strange going on inside his head. Something that occasionally escapes, like when he almost strangles Garofalo as they're romantically rough-housing.
Inside his head is also where Vann entertains fantasies about being caught. Two imaginary FBI agents (Dwight Yokam and Dennis Haysbert) pop up now and again to interrogate him, and he carefully calculates his replies.
At times Fancher seems to think he's being deep and insightful. He hopes to send you away into an all-night coffee house conversation about his film, but on that front he fails. "The Minus Man" just isn't that perceptive.
It is, however, a crafty curiosity with a lot of character depth that becomes scarier the more we learn about our killer, and it will make you think twice about any friendly stranger you meet.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th October 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $370.7 thousand
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Fresh: 21 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Hampton Fancher
Also starring: Janeane Garofalo