Artisan // 1999 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 1st, 2000
Don't see it alone. Unless you like talking to yourself.
The Minus Man is a hypnotic, disturbing, and unique look at the world through the eyes of a serial killer. Unlike the slasher movies or typical film where the killer is maniacal and a foil for the protagonist detective, this film portrays Vann Siegert, the killer, as a nice guy; likable, helpful and quiet. Just like what you often hear from neighbors of a caught serial killer: "he was a nice guy, didn't bother anyone, kind of a loner." This is the directorial debut of Hampton Fancher, who also wrote the script. Fancher's greatest fame comes from writing Blade Runner. Amazingly restrained in performance and direction, this film lulls you into feeling for the killer, even liking him, while keeping a sense of unease and suspense. A well rounded cast with a couple amazing performances make this film compelling, though you may wonder why it is so after seeing it. Artisan has brought this independent film to the light of day with a beautiful anamorphic transfer and an overall solid DVD.
The best thing about this movie has to be the performances. Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket, The Haunting, Armageddon) with his shy boy next door look and crooked nose and smile comes off as anything but a remorseless killer, at least to those who meet him. His portrayal, which goes into the parts of himself that people like and the moments when the killer peeks through, is genius. He isn't the typical serial killer, in that he doesn't explode into violence to kill. Instead he laces a flask of amaretto with a deadly poison that kills quickly and quietly. The victims just fall off as if to sleep into death. He doesn't plan the killings, he says, they just happen. He has no particular gender or demographic that he feels deserves to die. Only intermittently do you see a hint of the psychosis you know must be a part of his makeup.
Other performances were very strong as well. Janeane Garofalo (Mystery Men, Dogma, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion) plays totally against type as a small town girl smitten with Vann. Her earnest, naïve character without a hint of sarcasm makes this her most unforgettable role. The sense of unease and impending doom remain a strong undercurrent whenever the two are together; does he really like her or is he just planning to kill her, or both? Bryan Cox (Rushmore, The Long Kiss Goodnight, For Love of the Game) plays a small town landlord with a dark and disturbed inner self that is even more noticeable than Vann's. Some may remember that Cox played Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, the prequel to Silence of the Lambs, so this darkness is something he has experience in portraying. Doug Derwin (Cox) shows his darkness and troubled side as coming from disappointment and disillusionment, partially from his bad marriage to Jane, played by Mercedes Ruehl (Last Action Hero, The Fisher King, Married to the Mob). Both Cox and Ruehl bring a depth to their characters that you can feel; layers that stack like the ingredients of a triple-decker sandwich. Three other performances are noteworthy also but I'll get into them below.
The beginning of the film shows Vann Siegert traveling alone and stopping off at a small bar. There he meets Casper, a strung out alcoholic who makes conversation. She is played by pop music star Sheryl Crow in her acting debut, but brings off the part with complete authenticity. Vann takes her for a ride and when she asks to pull over so she can stick a needle in her arm, he offers her the flask o' death. She drinks and dies, and Vann leaves her in a restroom with the needle inserted in her arm, showing a level of unruffled calm and obvious experience with body disposal. So quickly you are introduced to who and what he is, but if you haven't figured it all out yet Vann will tell you as he provides narration by dictating his thoughts into a mini-recorder. Several times in the film he narrates in this manner.
Soon he is off to a small town on the west coast where he decides to stick around awhile. He finds a room to rent in the home of Doug and Jane Derwin, whose troubles seem to come mainly from the disappearance of their daughter long ago. Doug takes to him immediately but Jane takes longer, though she finally adopts a very motherly attitude toward him. Doug gets him a job at the post office where he works, where he meets Ferrin (Garofalo). Her painfully shy advances eventually win him over to go out with her, though you can tell she is inexperienced and Vann has no real knowledge of how to date someone. Periodically the urge comes over Vann and he kills again, without any apparent rhyme or reason. As the number of dead increase the police have linked the crimes to this particular poison and know they are dealing with a serial killer. The tension increases, as you somehow both want Vann to stop killing and still want him to get away. Vann's sincerity at least in part overwhelms the natural urge for justice.
I mentioned that only intermittently does Vann's very troubled nature assert itself. In part this becomes obvious when two imaginary police detectives become part of the scene, questioning Vann. The two, played by country music star Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade) and Dennis Haysbert (Major League, Random Hearts, The 13th Floor), question him and talk to him, usually in a good cop/bad cop manner. Just the fact that he has two imaginary cops looking for him is enough to portray his madness, but the scenes evoke it further. Another time you see him lose composure is when he goes with one potential victim to her home, but her art is so dark and disturbing he has to run away before he can go through with it. The last time violence is hinted at in his character is when things with Ferrin progress to the point of kissing, where you can tell Vann cannot handle true intimacy.
Fancher said of this film he wanted it to flow like a lullaby, and in many ways it does. His direction is as restrained as the dialogue, which is usually conversational in tone. The film's storyline doesn't truly go anywhere, but meanders along like a stream finding it's way over new ground. As far as the story goes, it is very reminiscent of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, with the soft spoken man with terrible urges walking through a small town. I won't say the film has Hitchcock's flair, but it has a similar edge. I found the whole experience disturbing, but I couldn't stop watching. It has a mesmerizing pull that forces you to watch, perhaps even despite itself.
Enough about the film for now. Artisan has done a great job with the picture and sound on this new release on DVD. I found the video especially wonderful, with strong colors and no artifacts or film defects. The look was very sharp without edge enhancement and very film-like. Very impressive on this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer.
An excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 track makes for clearly audible dialogue and plenty of push from all channels during the musical score. The film is largely talk so there isn't a lot of sound effects moving around, but what there is does move across the front channels. No complaints with the sound either.
There is a respectable number of bonus features for an indie film without a built in audience. Perhaps best are the biographies of various serial killers ranging in time from Jack the Ripper to present day, including all the ones you've likely heard of. The looks into their past show that the killers range the gambit from seemingly likable ones like Vann portrays to the more typical overtly violent. Fairly extensive production notes and cast and crew information are also provided. Two trailers, one for the theaters and one for the home video market are also included. I was particularly taken with the theatrical trailer, which takes a departure from normal fare. Like the trailer for Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane the trailer doesn't focus on the actual movie. Instead you see a couple who have just finished watching it, and they walk and stop at different locales talking about the movie. They talk until they are surprised to find the sun is coming up and the whole night has passed. Alarmed the girl takes off running, as she is late for work. Unfortunately her job was as a lifeguard, since she gets to work to see two dead floaters. The theme is you'll talk so much about the film that you'll forget everything else. The trailer was very good if disturbing, very like the film in that regard. Unfortunately both trailers are full frame and come from worn and nicked source prints.
First and foremost, this film isn't for everybody. My tastes are fairly pedestrian but I was still taken in. You won't find blood and gore in this movie so don't expect any. I will say that the pacing of the film is sometimes too slow. I know this was intentional but I found things dragging sometimes, as a scene just tarried on minutiae. You need a bit of patience to enjoy this one.
One element of the film I didn't much care for was the narration, which sometimes was very good but too often felt like the director thought we couldn't figure out the film for ourselves. I felt sometimes he was giving us obvious information that was gratuitous in repetition. I didn't find it so bad that it killed the movie, as you can tell from my review, but it did detract from the flow at times and was sometimes too obvious.
The only real complaint I have about the disc is the lack of subtitles. Please, Artisan, include closed captioning on every disc. The deaf and hard-of-hearing community deserves to enjoy your films too.
This movie was produced in part by David Bushell and Larry Meistrich, who also produced Sling Blade. I won't say The Minus Man is as good as that film but it does have some similarities. I found the movie intriguing to say the least. If you have a degree of patience and can enjoy character study over theatrics, and performance over thrills then you should like this film, maybe even more than I did. I heartily recommend the disc for purchase, but if you aren't sure about this type of movie give it a rental. It didn't play on many screens in theatrical release so this will probably be your first chance to see it. I'm glad I did.
Owen Wilson and Janeane Garofalo get my heartiest congratulations on great performances, as do Bryan Cox and Mercedes Ruehl. I'm impressed by this film as a debut effort from director Hampton Fancher, but I recommend he work a little bit on pacing for his next movie. Artisan is commended for a fine DVD, but fined for the lack of subtitles.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Serial Killer Biographies
* Cast and Crew Info
* Production Notes