There's a long tradition of stories about mysterious drifters who arrive in a small town and either create trouble or catalyze an explosion of long-simmering problems. Mark Twain used that hook, as have Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest), Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo), and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). Now Hampton Fancher -- best known for his co-credit on the screenplay for Blade Runner and his marriage (long ago and long undone) to Sue Lyon of Lolita fame -- makes his directorial debut with The Minus Man, yet another variation of this idea.
Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson) drives from town to town in his pickup charming everyone he encounters, including a drunk junkie named Casper (Sheryl Crow, in her just-barely-acting debut) in a middle-of-nowhere bar. He seems to take pity on her, paying for her booze and offering her a ride in his just-washed truck. But theirs is not a relationship meant to last: The two pull over at a highway rest stop in the middle of nowhere so Casper can shoot up. Vann offers her a drink from his flask -- a deadly cocktail of Amaretto and poison. He leaves her corpse in the bathroom, tying her off with the syringe in her arm -- the mark of the murderous pro. Surely, he figures, the authorities will mistake her for just another overdosed loner.
One day Vann cruises into a small Pacific Coast village named Owensville and rents a room from a middle-aged couple whose marriage is fraying around the edges, thanks in no small part to a teenage daughter who has run away. Husband Doug (Brian Cox) welcomes the stranger, treating him like an ersatz son, while wife Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) is more suspicious. Doug, who is given to bouts of violent self-flagellation, even gets Vann a job at the post office, where the newcomer becomes the immediate object of infatuation for the outgoing but lonely Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo). After all, what could be wrong with such a likable, respectful young man?
Indeed, Vann is a most compassionate and virtuous young man -- you know, the kind who uses his turn signal even when there is no traffic for miles, the kind who picks up overturned trash cans because he doesn't like a mess, the kind who offers casual acquaintances a ride. Then again, there is his unfortunate habit of killing anyone he believes would be better off dead, including a young high school football player whose father is pressuring him to be a star.
Vann isn't vicious or hostile; he doesn't seem to enjoy what he's doing, and even gives the occasional hint that he'd like to be caught, punished for his deeds. But there are some people whose lives would be so much less complicated if only they were dead, and Vann's the man to relieve them of their burdens. Of course, things get a little weird when townspeople start disappearing. And they get weirder when Vann is harangued by two cops (Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakam) who seem to live inside his head -- most likely, the product of his burgeoning guilt.
The story isn't particularly original: Even more than the movies cited above, it's similar to 1992's Public Access, the barely released debut feature from the director-screenwriter team of Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie, who went on to greater glory with The Usual Suspects. (Lew McCreary's 1990 novel, from which Minus Man is adapted, predates that film.) The advantage Fancher's movie has over Public Access is his cast.
Wilson -- who made a huge impression as the star and co-screenwriter of the shot-in-Dallas Bottle Rocket and has since alternated interesting small films such as Permanent Midnight with awful blockbusters such as Anaconda, Armageddon, and The Haunting -- is perfect as Vann. He brings to him an immediately engaging air that allows us to believe how readily people accept Vann. Garofalo, as always, is so sympathetic on-screen that Fancher doesn't have to work very hard to make us worry about her potential to become one of Vann's victims. And Cox, who appeared as the dean in Rushmore (which was co-written by Wilson), has long done his best work as precisely this sort of beaten-down, frustrated Everyman.
Vann narrates in voice-over throughout. This is often an easy expository device, but in this case it doesn't serve so much to move the plot as to give us a sense of the protagonist's deadpan inner life. There is a bit of Norman Bates in Vann, and more than a bit of Henry (from John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). But, even though the acting is first-rate and the storytelling isn't lazy, the plot itself isn't all that compelling: We've seen similar characters too many times in the past, and The Minus Man doesn't show us much of anything we haven't seen better already.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.