A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "The Minus Man" rides a wave of acclaim that's easy to understand. The debut directorial project of seasoned screenwriter/actor Hampton Fancher is morally ambiguous, delicately acted and dreamlike without being truly obscure -- qualities the indie crowd laps up like Perrier. Unfortunately, it's also an untethered exercise in psychological terror that never adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Fancher may be a 60-year-old Hollywood veteran (he wrote the script to the cult classic "Blade Runner"), but he's right in line with the new-school ideology that evil is both unexplainable and unavoidable. Rejecting the antiquated notion that an obvious nutball like Norman Bates could go unnoticed as the killer next door, Fancher couches homicidal intent in the more innocuous person of all-American drifter Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson). More affable than charming and displaying a gift for polite conversation that stops just short of wit, the highway-traversing Siegert appears to be a safe sounding board for troubled, unwary strangers in need of a sympathetic ear.
That nonthreatening magnetism allows the mystery man to find a temporary home in an unnamed West Coast town, where he becomes the tenant of a middle-aged couple named Doug and Jane (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl). The indulgent Doug even finds Vann a job at the local post office, where he impresses everyone with his industrious envelope-shuffling and catches the love-starved eye of lonely bachelorette Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo).
It's all a great cover for Vann's real interest: silently murdering random victims with poisoned liquids. The first time we see him do so, his prey is Casper, a barroom floozy played by Sheryl Crow (testing the acting waters in a part that's merely an elaboration of her "All I Wanna Do" video persona). Casper is such a hopeless, doomed case -- heck, she's named after a ghost -- that we suppose Vann may view killing her as a twisted form of euthanasia. But subsequent slayings muddy the issue: There's no rhyme or reason to the selection of his targets, a realization reinforced by interior monologues in which Vann wonders where he should draw the line between the condemned and the spared.
Motivation? We're given even less. In a series of self-flagellating fantasies, Vann imagines himself interrogated by Graves and Blair (Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakam), a good-cop-bad-cop pair of detectives. He apparently possesses some basic awareness that what he's doing is wrong, and recognizes that his eventual capture is an inevitability. But none of these introspective moments offers the slightest clue to what's driving Vann's deadly habit in the first place. Withholding that knowledge is the key to Fancher's game.
It's preordained, then, that the surrounding characters are significantly more involving. Cox and Ruehl cast some elegant shades in their roles as marrieds who have their own dark distresses to hide. Garofalo makes her Ferrin sad and sweet; the actress seems relieved that she's finally getting to play a single girl who doesn't coat her emotional vulnerability with a thick layer of sarcasm.
Yet in the middle of it all lies an intentional cipher. Refusing to define or defend his subject, Fancher lets Vann exist on a plane that's bereft of context or consequence. We're supposed to emerge uneasy that such sickness can move among us undetected -- perhaps even debating the "issue" as we exit the theater and uneasily shuffle to our cars. That simple shock tactic, however, is both the film's calling card and its central artistic flaw. By relying on the idea that the devil could be anybody, Fancher leaves us suspecting that we've just spent an evening in the company of no one in particular.