Noirvember 2020, Episode 4: The Minus Man (1999)

Yes, today I'm jumping ahead several decades into neo-noir territory with a movie you can find right now on Amazon Prime.



The Minus Man (1999)

Directed by Hampton Fancher

Produced by Keith Abell, Fida Attieh, David Bushell, Steve Carlis, Joseph J. DiMartino, Larry Neistrich, Mary Vernieu

Screenplay by Hampton Fancher

Based on the novel The Minus Man by Lew McCreary

Cinematography by Bobby Bukowski

Edited by Todd C. Ramsay

Music by Marco Beltrami

TSG Pictures

Distributed by Artisan Entertainment, The Shooting Gallery

(1:51) Amazon Prime


“I’m not surprised this country has so much violence. I’m surprised it has so little.”


I had never heard of this film until I read a recent article in Alta by Eddie Muller on a trio of neglected neo-noir films, which also includes Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and Cutter’s Way (1981), both of which would be fantastic choices for your Noirvember viewing. I certainly can’t compete with Muller’s review of The Minus Man (which you should read only after watching the movie), but I will share with you a few of my thoughts on the film.




Drifter Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson) eases his pickup truck into a small town along California’s Pacific Coast, stopping first at a local bar populated only by a bartender (John Carroll Lynch) who doesn’t seem to like Vann, and apparently the joint’s only frequent customer, a woman named Casper (Sheryl Crow). Vann offers a ride to Casper, and she accepts. (Who wouldn’t trust Owen Wilson, right?)



This is very early in the film, so it’s not much of a spoiler, but Vann offers Casper a taste from his poisoned flask, and she’s done. (No, neither “My Favorite Mistake” nor “Tell Me When It’s Over” play during the scene.) We quickly learn that Vann is a slick psychopath, perhaps one of the slickest and most unassuming psychopaths in cinematic noir.



The murder is even more unsettling because we know little to nothing of Vann’s backstory, except what he tells us from his voiceover narration and the frequent visits from his imaginary cops (Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert, in wonderful performances), always intent on interrogating him.



Vann earns the trust of nearly everyone he meets: the married couple Doug (Brian Cox) and Jane (Mercedes Ruehl), who take him in as a boarder, his boss at his newly-acquired post office job, and his coworker Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo). Although most of the women he meets are initially distant, Vann (seemingly through no real effort of his own) wins them over. The most interesting relationship is not the one between Vann and Ferrin, but between Vann and Jane, who seems to be distancing herself emotionally from her husband Doug, who may be having some personal crisis issues.



Vann - and everyone else in the small town - become concerned when newspapers, TV, and radio begin to report a series of strange local murders, not all of which we’re certain point to Vann. Yet despite his calm, contented demeanor, Vann begins to show signs to the people around him that he has a secret to hide.


I want to revisit this film for many reasons: the performances are excellent, the pacing extraordinary, and the way information is relayed feels organic. Wilson performs this role brilliantly, playing it somewhere between Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner and Shadow of a Doubt’s Uncle Charlie. He seems harmless, yet intelligent, a thinker. He’s a guy who says things like, “I look for the meaning of things, wait for a sign, an event of some kind,” and cryptic statements like “The urge races the path it’s traveled. I am becoming a fact.” Yet there’s more to Vann than what he tells and shows us. I may be misreading this, but it seems that Vann has some type of fear of animals that’s significant. I could be wrong. (Perhaps this is simply one more excuse for me to take a second viewing soon.)


I don’t know why The Minus Man isn’t talked about more. Although it played at Sundance in 1999, it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle when Lions Gate acquired Artisan Entertainment. Add to that the fact that this is Hampton Fancher’s only directorial feature, which may have something to do with it, but then again, you’ve got Owen Wilson, a bankable star in a remarkable performance. Yet maybe people didn’t want to see Wilson as a serial killer. Maybe audiences thought the film was too quiet or simply didn’t know what to do with it. After pulling in a whopping $40K during its opening weekend, there’s really not much lower you can fall. But thankfully the film is now playing on Amazon Prime, and perhaps Eddie Muller’s article will attract others as it did me. I hope you’ll check it out.


Next time: I’m not sure yet. I watched so many movies yesterday, I can’t decide! Stay tuned.


© 2019 by Andy Wolverton

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