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'The Minus Man' (1999): A Review

"I feel like a light in the dark. They come to me like moths, because I shine."
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The Minus Man

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Hampton Fencher might only have one director’s credit under his belt, but he certainly made it count with his 1999 cinematic adaptation of Lew McCreary’s book “The Minus Man”. The film stars Owen Wilson as Vann Siegert, a polite and well-spoken drifter who abstains from alcohol and drives his truck across country without a specific destination in mind. However, despite his laconic charm and approachability, Siegert is in fact a cold-hearted serial killer, though not the kind that are typically found in Hollywood features.

This is what sets “The Minus Man” apart from Hollywood’s slew of other “serial killer films”. Wilson is not a suave and witty monster like Hannibal Lector, nor a mute sociopath like Mike Myers. He is, quite simply, a soft-spoken and affable young man who happens to murder people for reasons that, for the most part, are left up to the viewers’ imagination and interpretation. The “ambiguity” behind Siegert’s murders is what that makes Fencher’s “The Minus Man” so captivating: instead of spoon-feeding the audience Siegert’s motives, he instead offers us clues in the form of voice-overs provided by Wilson that provide the audience with a definite direction while also leaving enough room for multiple interpretations and discussion.

Although he has since become more well-known for raunchy and/or off-beat comedies, Wilson’s performance in Fencher’s film is surprisingly effective and, on a subtle level, quite disturbing. In lieu of hamming it up, Wilson gives a laconic and laid-back performance that masks the obviously demented mentality of his character, which is externalized in the form of two homicide detectives, Blair (Dwight Yoakam) and Graves (Dennis Haysbert), who only exist in Siegert’s head (that’s not a plot-twist or a spoiler, by the by) and who harangue him throughout the film about getting caught or asking him why he kills people in the first place. Both Yoakam and Haysbert do an excellent job playing the manifestation of Seigert’s conscious, their back-and-forth chatter and occasional mocking of Wilson’s Seigert not only proving to be entertaining, but also an interesting interpretation/externalization of a man “wrestling” with his conscious.

Janeane Garofalo gives an unexpectedly touching performance as Ferrin, a lonely co-worker at the post office where Siegert works, and whom attempts to start a relationship with him soon after he drifts into town. Avoiding the pratfalls of over-acting, Garofalo portrays Ferrin as a lonely and miserable woman, but also manages to make the character affable and bubbly enough that it is difficult not to sympathize with her. Another surprisingly effective performance comes from Sheryl Crow, whose brief performance as a hitchhiker named Casper at the beginning of the film proves to be an interesting one despite its short length.

“The Minus Man” is not a scary movie, but it is a creepy one. Though its pace might be a bit too slow for those who are used to watching the police chase after the killer and try to stop him before he claims yet another victim, Fencher’s movie is far more suspenseful than the auto-pilot driven thrillers because of its atypical approach to the genre, with Siegert’s curious MO ensuring that we never know who his next victim might be, nor whether he will choose to stay with Ferrin or go back to his car and drive off to the next town.

Those expecting a suspense film with car chases, plot-twists, and other typical tropes will no doubt be disappointed with Fencher’s film since it has none of those things, but for those who want to experience something different, something that’s macabre and suspenseful on a much more subtle level, Fencher’s “The Minus Man” is the perfect film for them, its nuanced approach to the psychological crime genre being a strange but powerful one that’s sure to appeal to those who enjoy to “think” a little while they watch films.

Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.