Sunday 22 November 2009

The Minus Man (1999)

Director: Hampton Fancher
Stars: Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Cox, Mercedes Ruehl, Dwight Yoakam, Dennis Haysbert, Eric Mabius and Sheryl Crow
The Minus Man starts pretty quietly for a story about a cold blooded serial killer, taken from the novel by Lew McCreary. Instead of pounding nu metal we get some low key strumming and instead of some masked maniac we get some guy leisurely washing his pickup truck and when we see his unmistakable broken nose we can tell that it's Owen Wilson, hardly someone who leaps to mind when thinking about cold blooded serial killers. It's really interesting to watch him act because I don't think I've ever seen him do that before. Every other Owen Wilson movie I've seen, from Shanghai Noon to Zoolander to Night at the Museum has had him be either a caricature or an effect so I don't think I've ever seen him do anything still or quiet or pensive before.

We see a lot of that here, as the film stays quiet throughout. Wilson's character, Vann Siegert, drives around, watches, listens, thinks and becomes part of other people's stories, which is hardly difficult for him given Wilson's innate charm. What distinguishes him is that he also puts some of them out of their misery, but even the killing here is done quietly and subtly. Vann doesn't wield an axe or a machete or a chainsaw, his murder weapon is a sip of poisoned amaretto, the liqueur laced with some sort of poisonous forest spore. He doesn't even administer the lethal dose, merely makes it available to the victim who comes to him like a moth to a flame, or so he says.

The first is Sheryl Crow, playing a young lady called Laurie Bloom though she goes by Casper. He meets her in a bar where she's plastered without any ability to pay for it, she has asthma but she smokes and she even shoots up in his truck. A sip of amaretto and she doesn't have to deal with any of it any more. The second is a lot more surprising though. He's Gene Panich, a high school football player who seems to be ridden a little hard by his father and coach but really doesn't stand out in the slightest. There's no obvious reason for Vann to kill him, but he does so and he breaks a couple of his rules in the process: not to kill someone he knows and not to kill someone that lives in the same town.

It's this attempt to understand his reasoning that makes Vann Siegert such a fascinating character. In more conventional serial killer fims, the next victims are generally obvious: they fit a pattern that we're made privy to before even the cops chasing them. Here there is no discernible pattern and there are no cops on his trail, unless you count the two federal agents he dreams about. At one point the one played by Dwight Yoakam asks him why he chooses one particular victim and we still get more questions than answers. They're fascinating questions because Vann is a believable killer but he doesn't fit into any of the convenient categories we learn about on TV shows like CSI and Criminal Minds.

Owen Wilson is good here and he gives an excellent underplayed narration, but he's far from the best thing about the film, given that the couple he takes a room with are played by Mercedes Ruehl and Brian Cox. They're the Durwins and they're a happy couple, but one with issues to deal with: Vann takes the room previously occupied by their daughter who they initially say has left for college but has really left for parts unknown. They don't even know if she's alive. And yet, with each revelation about what the Durwins have to deal with and how they may not be dealing with it quite as well as it might appear, Vann doesn't add them to his list. Trying to work out why he doesn't is as fascinating as trying to work out why he does add others.

Brian Cox is magnificent, playing a complex character who builds throughout the film. I've known that he was an amazing actor for years, not least because of his awesome performance as Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter. What I haven't noticed before but which leapt out at me here is what he does with his mouth. His amoral slack jaw in Manhunter still resonates at me but I realise here that this is a routine part of his repertoire and it isn't just how he smiles, it's also in how he holds his mouth open. It feels strange raising such things but even a non-actor like myself can't help but watch him in admiration and marvel at his technique. In comparison Wilson seems mostly stuck with the same toothy grin throughout the film. Wilson's character comes out more in his voice than his features, Cox's comes out in both.

Ruehl is good, as is Meg Foster in a very brief role that only serves to provide another example of someone Vann decides not to kill, making her a strange choice indeed to play the part. Janeane Garofalo has rightly been given much praise for her role as a far from conventional love interest for Vann. She is utterly believable as a small town girl who is drawn to our killer for other reasons that the one he tends to expect. He only seems to understand people when they're moths drawn to his flame because he shines, but she just likes him and so he has absolutely no idea what to do with her. There's a connection between the two but it veers between comfortable human interaction and strange dialogue that feels like two separate conversations mashed together.

The Minus Man's chief claim to fame apparently ties to its promotional material which highlights how the film should spark discussion and prompt conversation rather than show us what happens. One trailer sees a couple on a date leaving the film and talking all night about it, only for one, who is a lifeguard, to realise the time and rush off to work, finding a couple of bodies dead in a pool. 'Don't see it alone, unless you like talking to yourself,' runs the tagline. It is a very thoughtful movie but never in any heavy philosophical way. Really the slow pace, hypnotic soundtrack and strenuous lack of action washes over you like a soothing lullaby, which may well have been the intent. Any real discussion would have to come afterwards.

I have no idea how faithful the adaptation is but it was done by Hampton Fancher who also directed the film, so there's certainly a vision there of some sort. Yet my biggest question is in asking what he was trying to get us to ask? The question as to why Vann picks his victims really ends when the film ends because we're never given a hint to the answer and we gradually come to the realisation that one may not even exist. Obscurity is fine, but obscurity for obscurity's sake goes nowhere. It's likely that he wants to ask about the morality involved but without reasoning we can't discuss the moral motivations. In the end it merely plays like an enjoyable quirky story as engaging as its lead actor but which tries to be too clever for its own good. Fancher also co-wrote Blade Runner, which warrants all the discussion this one wanted to.

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