Written and directed by Hampton Fancher

Oct 6, 1999 at 4:00 am
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. One day he cruises into a small Pacific Coast village and rents a room from a middle-aged couple whose marriage is fraying around the edges. Husband Doug (Brian Cox) welcomes the stranger, treating him like an ersatz son, while wife Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) is more suspicious. Doug 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?

Besides, that is, his unfortunate habit of killing anyone he believes would be better off dead.

Vann isn't vicious or hostile; he doesn't seem to enjoy what he's doing. 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.

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 The 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 star/co-screenwriter of Bottle Rocket and has since alternated interesting small films with awful blockbusters like 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 onscreen 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 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.

Opens Oct. 8 at the Hi-Pointe.