If there's anything fascinating about "The Minus Man" -- and that's a big "if" -- it's the way the film lies to its audience. Hampton Francher's directorial debut is a thrill-less thriller and a shameful waste of talent. The ads promise a thinking-person's movie, but it's really just an "Afterschool Special" for the indie-film set. (The message: Evil is everywhere, and don't trust smiling blond strangers.) It promises head games and mystery, but in the end its only semi-heroic achievement is reducing a heroin addict, a whiskeyed drunk, a self-flagellating old man, a serial killer and Dwight Yoakam to theatrical wallpaper.
The flaw at the center of the film is a small, black tape recorder. Nice-guy serial killer Vann Siegert (a toothy Owen Wilson) confesses his motivations to the little device and his thoughts play back to the audience as drawling voice-over. The effect is at once deadening and oddly confusing. There are only two reasons director Fancher, semi-famous for writing the excellent "Blade Runner" screenplay, would rely so much on Vann's narration: Either he doesn't trust his actors, or he doesn't trust his audience to get it without spelling out Vann's every motivation. Both are lazy and arrogant.
At the beginning of the movie, Vann tells us he's a killer. He doesn't know why -- just is. As if offering a demonstration, he picks up a strung-out drunk (Sheryl Crow, who plays the part slumped over the bar like she's suffering from low blood sugar, not enjoying an afternoon bender). Vann introduces himself as a slow-going traveler, offers her a ride in his truck and pulls over to watch her stick a needle in her arm. As she slips into her high, he offers her a nip off his flask of poison amaretto. (Note to Fancher and future screenwriters: Hardcore junkies don't drink when they shoot-up; the synergy is terrible and it's incredibly dangerous.) Seconds later, Crow (and, presumably, her budding acting career) nods off for good. Vann disposes of her in the rest-stop bathroom in a way that makes it clear he's done this before. Just in case his efficiency doesn't impress us, Vann then launches into a boring monologue about killing.
Vann smiles on down the highway and stops in Owensville long enough to board with troubled couple Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) and Doug (Brian Cox). He moves into the room of the middle-aged couple's missing daughter, a fact that may or may not be important. Jane wants the couple to keep their distance, but Doug immediately cheats and sneaks up to Vann's room to chat and invite him out to watch small-town high school football. The two become fast friends, and Doug steers Vann into a job at the local post office.
Before he gets to any more poisoning, Vann pretty much anesthetizes everyone he meets with his overbearing politeness and silly grin. Among the impressed is mail sorter Ferrin (a pink-lipsticked and sarcasm-free Janeane Garofalo), who thinks she's found herself a real catch. She tries to get him to join her for drinks, and eventually lures him out for a painfully cloying hug session -- cue sweet love song -- on the beach. It's nice to see Garofalo play someone besides her wonderfully snarky self, but it's a shame that she's never given anything but a bottle of whiskey to play with. In between dates, Vann goes about his quiet killing spree.
"The Minus Man" suffers from Fancher's lethargic, uncertain pacing, which fails to resonate like the Hitchcock and Lynch films the director is trying to invoke. Based on a 1990 novel by Lew McCreary and adapted by Fancher, the slow indie picture plays like a film that wants to capture a book's feel, if not all its luminescent details. Entire scenes and characters feel like shorthand. Presumably blaming himself for the disappearance of their daughter, Doug suddenly cracks and starts fighting with himself. (In short bouts of masochistic physical violence, he loses.) For Vann's part, he briefly cracks twice, once while looking at a spooky painting and again in a moment of physical intimacy with Ferrin. A series of dreams involving two detectives (Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert) who play good cop/bad cop with Vann are supposed to lend us insight into Vann's fractured psyche, but they only wind up muddling the plot.
Vann tells us that he fancies himself some sort of pied piper of death. "They come to me like moths because I shine," he says. But Wilson's Vann -- sort of a grinning beaver puppet with moppy blond hair -- shines with the intensity of a dulled quarter found in a laundromat. Sure, he's nice. Friendly too. But let's consider the victims here: First up, Sheryl Crow, who is a drink short of a mid-afternoon hangover and out of money. Vann pays her tab and she's his. Next up, a teenage football stud who needs a ride home. Tough. And then there's potentially Ferrin, a humdrum shit-worker who's attracted to him presumably because he's breathing. Moths to a flame? More like teenagers to a mall -- there's nothing else to do.
"The most important part of understanding someone is knowing if they can hurt you," Vann says, in one of several awkward attempts to inject some psychology into this would-be psychological thriller. And it's a fairly interesting idea. Then again, Vann never really meets anyone capable of hurting him, except maybe Ferrin. He never really sizes people up. Others examine him, briefly, and usually decide after a few of his wide grins and simple lies that he's completely trustworthy.
"The Minus Man" is supposed to be a smart movie. The marketing campaign advises not to take a dumb date, and promises that "conversation usually follows" the film. But by the time the movie delivers its wet blanket ending, you couldn't care less. If you're dragged to the theater to be someone's not-dumb date, pack a crossword and a light pen. It'll be the only puzzle worth solving.