THE MINUS MAN (1999)
A one of a kind indie movie that is effortlessly unsettling and human
Released the same year as American Beauty and with a far more subtle and unsettling indictment of suburban angst at its core, Hampton Fancher’s The Minus Man is one of those miracle movies that the conventional wisdom says should not have been allowed to happen. Fancher, co-writer and co-Executive Producer of Blade Runner over fifteen years prior, already 60 years old and writing his screenplay based on an obscure novel, then attaching the not-yet-household name Owen Wilson to star…such a combo hardly seems the slam-dunk package that would have made investors, even indie investors, drool. No, this sure feels like one of those projects that clearly had everybody, starting with its producers at the Shooting Gallery, believing in it from the get-go. And to anyone who grooves on intelligent, offbeat cinema that defies categorization, it is easy to see why.
Wilson plays Vann, a genial tabula rasa of a guy who is tooling along the California coastline in a pickup, politely explaining to people like inquisitive park rangers that he fell asleep in his truck and sorry, ma’am, it won’t happen again. Shortly thereafter, he charms a train-wreck of a female barfly (Sheryl Crow, who acquits herself quite well in a small role) at a local watering hole and drives off with her. But sex is the furthest thing from his mind. Vann much prefers slipping folks a little fast acting poison. Our drifter is a killer, you see, and that’s what makes his inscrutable, nice-enough-guy persona so damn chilling. In adapting Lew McCreary’s book, Fancher, to his everlasting credit, never invites those chills with anything but the everyday; so we can see, clearly and without question, how and why Vann is able to so seamlessly, and with such goodwill, weave himself into the fabric of the next small town he visits.
There, he rents the upstairs room of a house, occupied by a bedraggled married couple (Jane and Doug, masterfully played by Mercedes Ruehl and the estimable Brian Cox) whose daughter is “gone” in some way that is never fully explained but that is capable of intermittently provoking gut-wrenching grief in her parents. Since their new boarder is a blank upon whom one can project any aspect of themselves that they want, the lonely, misunderstood Doug immediately takes a fawning liking to Vann and scores him a part-time job at the post office during the Christmas rush. And Jane, as is (shall we say), touched upon throughout the story, may have some kind of Oedipal thing developing with her new houseguest, too. Meanwhile, the young man’s mirror-you magnetism also leads to an insta-crush from his new co-worker Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo in one of her better, more nuanced performances), blind as she is to the layers of sexual dysfunction that Vann not only keeps so well hidden but sublimates with his nefarious extra-curricular activity. Said activity is soon continued in the town, and Vann barely even needs to keep a low profile; he is hardly even there to begin with.
This is fertile ground for an exploration of the superficiality of most human interaction, the pent-up pain carried by so many outwardly normal people, and the slow deaths some of us opt for rather than be forced to stare at ourselves for very long. And Fancher, a real actor’s director (he is a working actor himself), gets just the right tone out of his cast to make sure these themes are scratching at the walls of their psyches, revealing much without explicitly stating anything. The more we learn about Vann’s landlords, Jane and Doug, the more we wonder who among the three of them is actually carrying more violence around inside. Vann’s audio diary also supplies a thought-provoking narration track (wonderfully read by Wilson) that is peppered throughout.
Narration is something that can sink a film simply by existing, but it is carefully considered here and adds to the shudder-inducing vibe. Only slightly less successful are some recurring fantasy sequences in which Vann endures questioning by Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakam (both very good), who play the imaginary FBI agents that he suspects will one day catch up to him. In a movie that has so many nuances, these scenes are interesting but vary in effectiveness, noticeably trying to be David Lynch-like surreal and/or hitting things a little too hard on-the-nose. Another small shortcoming is the poorly planned depiction of Vann’s postal service job, which smacks of being a little shy on authentic details of day-to-day mail operations, but this can be overlooked in light of the story’s lingering impact which is, make no mistake, a gets-under-your-skin achievement.
Owen Wilson is really, really good as Vann. It isn’t so much that you can see why people like him, because that is not the territory Fancher is exploring; no, it is that you can see why people see nothing when they see him, and so live through him in a weird and troubling way. Wilson brings just the right combination of guilelessness and boyish, aw-shucks enthusiasm to his interpretation; in fact, you might want to take a moment to go back to the first few moments of the movie after you’ve watched it all the way through. In them, Vann is getting into his truck, leaving somewhere, heading somewhere else and giving a smile and a wave to an unseen person as he departs. Where was he? How had that earlier person become enmeshed in his nothingness? These are questions the film is asking before we even know where we are and what is going to happen. And such well-thought out touches are details that reveal the richness in the material, which is nicely complemented by Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s unobtrusive score.
This film is nothing more than a detached, casual observer to its own dark, frightening and often painfully sad events. In lesser hands, being casual about such disconcerting stuff could send things off the rails. But The Minus Man is right on track, and it is, like Vann himself, waiting for you to come on board and lose yourself inside it.
Read more reviews of the Best Films You’ve Never Seen here.
SPRING FORWARD (1999)
Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty bring it all back home in Tom Gilroy’s elegant ode to the importance of friendship.
By the early 1990’s, the multi-faceted “men’s movement” had reached its point of media saturation, and for those attuned to it—whether participatory or not—it was commonplace to hear stories of its then most prominent facets, such as men-only weekend retreats in which guys were encouraged to share feelings, pound their chests and reclaim aspects of their masculinity lost to the corporate, non-tribal culture. By the end of the decade, such ideas had still not truly taken hold in the mainstream, but it’s easy to see how the issues they raised would resonate with artists. The trick, though, in touching upon such issues in a film, is to seamlessly integrate the ‘message’ so that the viewer is not subjected to a New Age diatribe that he or she could easily get by signing up for a night class at the Learning Annex. Finessing such a feat is a tall order, but given that Spring Forward has ended up in a column with a title such as this one, you can safely assume that Writer/Director Tom Gilroy pulled it off with flying colors. And just in time for spring at that.