[Screen It]

(1999) (Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo) (R)

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Drama: A serial killer moves into a small town where the residents are unaware of his homicidal ways.
Vann Siegert (OWEN WILSON) is a calm and friendly drifter who's arrived in a small, coastal town. After dispatching a disillusioned, asthmatic junkie, "Casper" (SHERYL CROW), with a poisoned concoction, Vann rents a room from a local couple, Doug (BRIAN COX) and Jane (MERCEDES RUEHL), whose marriage is more than a bit shaky.

Even so, Doug takes an immediate liking to the personable and agreeable newcomer, and even gets him a job at the local post office. There, Vann soon becomes a model employee and draws the amorous attention of a fellow postal worker, Ferrin (JANEANE GAROFALO).

No one knows of Vann's secret, a point he expertly hides from the others, while still answering to his addiction to kill. Yet, when more locals, such as high school football star Gene Panich (ERIC MABLUS), begin disappearing or are found dead, the police begin closing in on the killer who's also taunted by a duo of imaginary cops, Blair (DWIGHT YOAKAM) and Graves (DENNIS HAYSBERT), who plague him as much as the blackouts that often render him unconscious.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Ah, serial killers. Whenever you hear about them, they're always described as the quiet type, the friendly guy next door who always kept to himself. Often disarmingly charming, they're the ones whose mothers claim to be shocked to hear of their son's "hobby," but deep down probably knew that something fishy was going on with them.

Of course, ever since reports first surfaced about serial killer Ed Gein finding some new "material" for his lampshades back in the ‘50s, the public has been sickened, but simultaneously fascinated with these killers and their mass murder sprees.

Not wanting to miss out on a "good thing," Hollywood has fully embraced such types as the heir apparent to the role of the monster character long since vacated by the likes of Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, etc… Whether they dressed like "mother," have their acquaintances for dinner with a nice Chianti and fava beans, or simply hate amorous teenagers but love large cutlery, the cinematic serial killer has been represented countless times and in various fashions.

However, it's quite rare for any such films to explore the "but why" questions regarding the origins of such homicidal activity. Although the latest such film, "The Minus Man" appears to be doing just that by getting inside the killer's head, unfortunately it ends up raising more questions than it ultimately answers.

Written and directed by Hampton Fancher, best known for penning the screenplay for the sci-fi classic, "Blade Runner" (as well as "The Mighty Quinn"), the film doesn't showcase its villain as pure evil, a supernatural character, or even a knife-wielding maniac. Truer to form, the serial killer appears to be a nice guy on the outside who happens to have a particularly troublesome addiction and/or urge.

Yet, for the more accurate portrayal -- and plenty of voice-over narration from the killer describing his methods and philosophy about such matters -- the film never truly delves into what makes this guy tick or what may have led to his present "condition." Granted, this isn't supposed to be an all-encompassing psychology documentary about such people, but a bit more insight into the killer's psyche would have made it much better.

Fancher, who makes his directorial debut with this story -- that's based on Lew McCreary's novel of the same name -- appears to be taking the approach that this killer's behavior is just a quirk of nature -- like a two-headed turtle -- or a preprogrammed, instinctual urge that must be satisfied. Without much of an explanation, or conversely, a white knuckled suspense approach, however, the picture comes off as rather blasé.

For much of the film all we have to keep us interested is our knowledge that Vann is a killer lurking about in a town whose inhabitants are unaware of his pastime. Thus, we wonder, but surprisingly don't worry too much, about whom his next victim may be. Sure, he kills someone and then announces -- in a deadpan, and self curious manner -- that he's broken his rule about dispatching someone other than a stranger, but Fancher never fully exploits that element to generate some additional heat. It's only when the police start closing in on the killer toward the end that things finally become a bit more interesting.

What the film does have going for it, however, is a great performance by Owen Wilson ("The Haunting," "Armageddon") as the personable killer. Avoiding the effective theatrics employed by Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs" or the impersonal Michael Myers/Jason killers of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" lore, Wilson creates an interesting and complex character full of inner musings and behavioral tics (carefully pulling his truck out onto a deserted highway, having to square himself up to a set of front steps before climbing them, etc…) that keep the audience intrigued about him.

The film's supporting performances are all good, although the characters are never fully realized and/or explored. As Vann's landlords, both Brian Cox ("Rushmore" and the original Hannibal Lecter in "Manhunter") and Mercedes Ruehl ("The Fisher King," "The Last Action Hero") perfectly play a dysfunctional couple whose lives are affected by their tenant. Yet, like Vann, we never really know what makes them tick. Thus, while their superficial behavior is intriguing, we yearn to know more about them, but never get the chance.

Janeane Garofalo ("Mystery Men," "Clay Pigeons") delivers a decent, and far more subdued than normal performance as Vann's coworker. Singer Sheryl Crow gives an okay, albeit short take as a disillusioned junkie, while Dennis Haysbert ("The Thirteenth Floor," the upcoming "Random Hearts") and country singer turned part-time actor Dwight Yoakam ("Sling Blade," "The Newton Boys") play a set of imaginary detectives who hound Vann's imagination.

For all of the decent and credible performances, however, the film's plot and some of its dialogue -- particularly early in the film -- are its weakest elements. Early exchanges seem artificial and forced, thus drawing undue attention to the dialogue. And while the film has some investigating cops, but intentionally isn't following the standard route of focusing on them (although it offers a continually reappearing imaginary pair), their efforts to solve the crime aren't particularly noteworthy.

While Fancher does provide some diversionary plot elements for the local police to follow, it strains credibility that the locals don't automatically think of Vann as the likely suspect -- notwithstanding his pleasant demeanor -- since the bodies started piling up around the same time he rolled into town. Although that's not a particularly troublesome plot-related problem, most viewers will probably come to the same conclusion.

Save for the detailed and finely tuned performance by Wilson, this is an okay, but clearly unremarkable look at the life and times of a serial killer. As his character says at one point, "I look for the meaning of things," well, so do we, but this picture doesn't offer much in that regard. Had some more insight been offered into the origins of and reasons for his behavior (as was presumably evident in the original novel), this would have been a far more intriguing film. As it stands, "The Minus Man" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 30, 1999 / Posted September 24, 1999

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