The Minus Man
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

Owen Wilson in The Minus Man.
Forget the things that go bump in the dark. During the last decade, postmodern horror directors such as David Lynch have suggested a sneakier breed of demon – the kind that lurks behind white picket fences. Suburbia has become the new landscape of fear. The now-famous opening sequence of Blue Velvet serves as a cultural signpost. On the soundtrack blares a syrupy ballad from a less-cynical era. We cruise past strings of cookie-cutter homes – the American dream in candy-tinted Technicolor. A close-up zooms deep into the manicured lawn, revealing a secret uneasiness behind all this bland complacency: a swarm of ants munching a human ear (not merely a footnote to Bunuel, but a return to ideas first introduced in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.)

Director Hampton Fancher might've cribbed from Hitch's 1943 classic (scripted by Thorton Wilder) in which a psycho is perceived as "your average nice guy" by the small town residents of Santa Rosa, California. Fancher bases The Minus Man on the acclaimed book by Lew McCreary. It's not the first time the 62-year old director (who acted in films such as Roman Adventure) has translated a literary work to screen. He's best remembered for co-writing Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir exemplar Blade Runner, which has been released two versions, with and without Harrison Ford's dour voice-overs. In the case of The Minus Man, Fancher drowns us in pointless voice-overs and tedious dream sequences among many easy tricks to bend the novel into cinematic language.

Our well-mannered murderer, Vann Siegert, is played by Owen Wilson (co-writer of another dark comedy, Bottle Rocket, in which he starred with his brother Luke). He makes the perfect candidate for a serial-killer-in-schmuck's-clothing – if only in the physical sense. Study his bleached-blonde, hangdog demeanor, a tall face with not much detail to it, long teeth, a one-sided smile. Yet inside, he lacks the proper subtext. Like the movie itself, he's all surface, no bite.

Mercedes Ruehl and Brian Cox.
Vann drifts into a truck stop and picks up Sheryl Crow (a rock star making her movie debut as a junkie. What a concept). They trade small talk. She wonders if he'd like to get high. ("How?" he blinks in an unbearringly funny moment). Van passes her a swig of what appears to be vanilla extract. Poor Sheryl (whose screen-name is Casper, like the ghost) slips off to a long, toxic sleep. Nothing is explained, nor do we see her again. Vann continues drifting (because that's what drifters do best). He settles as a tenant with an odd pair of Lynchian landlords. Doug (Brian Cox) has the strange, masochistic habit of punching himself in the face (when not performing Tai Chi on the front lawn). His morose wife Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) lolls in front of the television, watching home movies of the daughter who never came home. (By this time, we know better than to expect a reasonable account of what happened).

The underlying premise hints that everyone in Anytown, USA is hiding a private melancholy in spite of their polished exteriors. Take the reluctant high-school football star. Or the disheveled man sitting solitary in a coffee shop (a cameo by McCreary). Or the crazy woman who paints portraits of Mexican boys putting guns to their heads. Or Vann's post office co-worker, Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo in an unusually restrained role as the lonely local girl desperate for a date). We're meant to perceive Vann as an existential Angel of Mercy, delivering these victims from their meaningless fates (or plotless scenes). But with townspeople this two-dimensional (and an anti-hero with no clear motivation) we're left with little reason to care.

Novels have the luxury of leaving questions unanswered. Cinema can't work the same way without a compelling protagonist – the type so interesting we forgive the film for shirking its narrative responsibilities. A serial killer who behaves as a "normal" citizen is hardly new to movies or books (or crossbreeds of both). Hannibal Lecter (whom Cox portrayed in Manhunter, 1986) was a hyper-intelligent gentleman who happened to snack on human liver, with a nice Chianti. What made him tick? That's what we wanted to know. Vann doesn't provide much intrigue. He tries so hard to be boring, he actually succeeds.

In his mind, he is chased by illusory cops (country crooner Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert). These tiresome scenes drag on without tension (if the cops aren't real, how can they hurt him?). "I'm not surprised this country has so much violence. I'm surprised it has so little," admits Vann in one of his many voice-overs. So we're stuck with a talky killer in an eyeblink town of soulless losers. Bring on the violence. At least then, we'd know they were alive.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

Movie Web site: THE MINUS MAN