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If Hampton Fancher or Lew McCreary knew what impulses lay behind blandly random evil, surely it would be their job—Fancher’s as the director of this eerily poised serial-killer film and McCreary’s as the novelist on whose book the film is based—to come out and tell us. But because Fancher, at least (he wrote the script), is smart enough not to presume, The Minus Man becomes something much more alluring and fraught than any slash-and-explicate murderous-drifter flick.

Instead, the amiably loping killing spree that quietly picks off the dispossessed and emotionally needy citizens of a small town is portrayed through the eyes of the everyday neurotics who are both likely and peculiarly hapless victims. Although Fancher never turns away from the travels and poisonous fantasies of Vann (Owen Wilson), the director finds him as outwardly pleasant and finally unknowable as his prey do—the camera is charmed, suspicious, and bewildered, imparting a perilous vulnerability to all who calculate the risks of trust between people. No handy childhood traumas or private acts of violence interfere with the audience’s experience of Vann’s psychopathology; it is not the friendly suburban folks of the film’s town who are being threatened, but the potential victims sitting in their theater seats, waiting for a distancing explanation that never comes.

Wilson couldn’t be better cast as Vann, a viper pit of physical control and courteous gestures with a face permanently screwed up in quizzically polite inquiry. The way he sets the edges of his teeth together to smile looks both practiced and boyishly captivating; even his creepy inner monologue, revealed as sporadic voice-over narration, has a musing, eager tone, as if it were recounting distant pleasures. Vann first rides into a roadhouse on the outskirts of the town, encountering a strung-out Casper (Sheryl Crow), the only customer, if you can call her that—she can’t pay, but sure can drink—and an annoyed bartender. Fights are picked, and the droopy drunken girl accepts Vann’s reluctant chivalry. She’s the type of clever mess who keeps a corner of her head, the part that sizes up strangers, pristine—she knows she can hit on the smiling blond drifter and act her worst, because he’s too gentlemanly and unjudgmental to cause her any harm. Vann watches pityingly as the girl makes a pit stop to shoot up, and when she shows interest in the flask he keeps on his dashboard, he allows her to have a swig.

“I take the natural momentum of a person and draw it toward me,” Vann says in voice-over, a little portentously. If his inner thoughts were clearer, much of his mystery would dissipate, but Vann’s demented contention is that he’s a kind of dark angel, helping the miserable on their way. The poisoned amaretto that dispatches his victims so quietly and satisfyingly is the mildest, most comforting of weapons, the way Vann sees it. Self-explication only flutters around his talk—a hint of moral justification, a whisper of euthanasiac mercy, a soupcon of regretful duty. Much more potent and alarming are the visions he suffers from, of two antagonistic cops (Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert) confronting him with a TV-derived song-and-dance of tough talk, transparent PD methodology, and hectoring interrogation. As the cops “close in” on Vann, his mind appears to be collapsing in on itself, and his narration toys frequently with the idea of leaving a trail, spilling his guts, getting himself blissfully caught.

But there are more needy folk to be attended to. Vann takes a room in the house of a disturbed couple, Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) and Doug (Brian Cox). She’s implosively frustrated with her life and marriage; her husband is outwardly bluff and glad-handing in a manner so obviously desperate it makes Vann’s scarily calculated politeness look totally unthreatening. Both Doug and Jane rue something fiercely; the film hints strongly that there’s much more to the story of their flown-the-nest daughter—whose room Vann takes—than the smiling graduation photo on her dresser, but we never know what. No character takes time out to fill us in; they all react and present facades in the aftermath of experience—Vann says of the daughter’s picture, with exquisite inanity, “She looks smart”; Doug suffers from bursts of self-lacerating fury.

After demonstrating himself to be a fine and upstanding young person, Vann gets himself a job at the post office and meets awkward Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo), whose sweetly crude vamping and dissolving self-consciousness any formerly crush-plagued human will recognize, with a blush. Methodically adopting the camouflage of a normal person, Vann begins courting Ferrin, plays a little football with the high school champ—to whom both he and father-figure Doug have ambiguous relationships—and all the time seems to derive most pleasure not from knocking off deserving folk, but from observing how his society changes people. He gets a little boost from rebuffing Ferrin’s earnest advances and listening to Jane, no longer wry and wary, moan about the disaster her life has become. It’s as if the killing makes him numb, and he longs for connection, although the killing itself is a kind of connection.

Fancher never allows Vann the satisfaction of connecting, though. His photography is sun-drenched—almost whitewashed—and remarkably low-key, free from camera tricks, shock cliches, and the omniscient eye of anyone outside this game of cat and mouse. Over time it becomes clear that he’s couching his performance as a nice guy as a performance itself, executing every act with youthful relish as if he’s being timed by a kindly coach. When Vann joins the football team in a little unofficial roughhousing, he’s tackled hard, and Fancher shows him in a queerly pitiless light—pale and deflated like a beached flounder against the glowing green grass. The director’s unhurried style (the film is short and completely fat-free) allows time for small revelations and moments of recognition, like those we have while getting to know a person. A horror director after all, Fancher wants us to really get to know Vann, and to our dismay, we do.