I’m a victim of my own good fortune, which is to say, I’ve been spoiled. Had I not recently burned through, or been burned through by, the first four seasons of Dexter, I might have walked away from 1999’s Minus Man with a greater appreciation of the originality with which the film treats its serial killer, Vann Siegert. On its own merits, the movie does provide many pleasures, but in each case, a gremlin of inconsistency sneaks into the picture. I owe you several examples, so here goes:
For starters: The title character’s voice-over and dialogue hit several poetic high notes: “I’ve never really cared for lakes. Lakes are like… stepping into somebody else’s underwear.” “I like the detail of a thing. Especially if it’s got a purpose.” At times these gems seem to string together into something greater, but others sound like snatches taken randomly from a journal, perhaps Walt Whitman’s, if Walt Whitman had the intellectual libido of a surfer.
The movie toys with greatness in a similar way for a stretch in the middle when the idea of Vann’s omnivorous, catch-what-comes nature finds echoes in his voice-over narrative, and in the narrative from a nature show he’s watching about (I think) toads, and in his eating habits, as he polishes off a snack and then discovers a proper meal sitting on a tray just outside his door–he sets to the meal with little show of surprise or acknowledgement of the irony that he’s just had something to eat. The effect of this scene is indeed like that of a nature show, with Vann as the lazy toad following his bliss from moment to moment on his little lilypad of a bed. But we don’t see enough of this wit from Minus Man, and at times the movie itself seems to be the lazy toad, not willing to hunt down significance or beauty, but willing merely to capture them as they pass, and sit inert for long stretches in between.
Similarly, the movie takes care to touch on several topics any competent serial killer movie must address–the killer’s sexuality; the killer’s ability to feign emotion; the killer’s bonds with other people; the killer’s method of choosing victims; the killer’s motivation or type of catharsis from killing. But the movie doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with each of these topics. Vann’s sexuality is touched on in a scene where he miscalculates exactly how roughly to wrestle back against a playful date, but barely, and what we see of both characters in that scene rings false–the date, Ferrin, who has been utterly puppyish in her crush on Vann, freaks out too immediately and loudly when he finally responds to her play, and acts afterward as though he had struck or bit her. And from Vann, we see in his wrestling a willingness to indulge in aggression, that we otherwise get no hint of. He says elsewhere that he’s not violent, and that he does the minimum necessary to kill his victims, and we see and believe him.
Likewise, Vann shows some signs of caring for Ferrin, as well as for his landlords (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl), but these contradict other scenes, such as the one where he responds to a Christmas gift in the most socially inept and insensitive way possible. It’s as though Minus Man remembers half the time that Vann is, as any serial killer must be, supremely ill-adapted to society, and capable of interacting with people comfortably only from a position of paranoid control… while the other half of the time forgetting this, and depicting Vann as a Zen-like master of receptivity, open to trying out friendship and a woman’s nurturing embraces with the same ease as he tries out different locales and jobs. The movie rings truer when acting on the former impulse, as when Vann ditches his host family to wander around on Christmas morning, and when he narrates, “The most important thing to figure out about someone is whether they can hurt you.” But the script follows Owen Wilson too often to an opposite place, where a serial killer can be a gentle poet, childlike in his openness to the flow of life, at ease among his prey. Wilson takes so easily to this latter place, it’s hard to imagine the movie doing anything differently with his character. Heck, the movie even lets Wilson act at one point as though he’s a fully-functional, fully-empathetic, socialized adult, who upon seeing his friend hitting himself, shouts at once for said friend to stop. The moment is not true to Vann at all, and the result is not a believable human being–and unfortunately, this is the sort of story that lives or dies on the believability of its human beings.
I think mention is due to a couple of other notable elements. First, to have Vann’s life intersect that of another killer, struck me at at first as an unearned coincidence–unearned not because it seemed improbable (coincidences are by definition improbable-seeming), but because it didn’t seem significant enough. But then, isn’t what Vann learns from the other killer’s capture rather significant indeed? He seems to learn, essentially, not to be such a toad–to be more careful, to tread more lightly, to eat more choosily, and to keep moving. But again, why would the movie introduce his careless, lazy predation with such confident, broad strokes in the nature-show scene, and then treat the character’s evolution away from carelessness so much more lightly, with so much less emphasis on symbolism and narrative symmetry? Which brings me to the other notable element: the final shot. The movie’s final shot succeeds on its own terms, and transcends the rest of the film in emotional impact, thanks in large part to a big shift to Hitchcockian music and lighting. But that last image, of a highway construction sign flashing its two-headed arrow: how does that speak at all to the core matter of Vann’s evolution? It seems to belong to an entirely different movie, a movie less about Vann’s nature and more about our inability to detect the killer in our midst. But then, judging from the film’s title, we’re supposed to see Vann’s nature as intractably cryptic, as undetectable. Vann is a cypher; we are doomed to miss the point of him, or perceive anything consistent or true in him. How convenient a thesis for a film so unsure of itself.
I suppose I’d have preferred that the movie hew more closely to that solid conception of Vann as a sun-baked toad. But then, would you call the movie Toad Man? And would Owen Wilson be able to pull off a character that substantial?