Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson) is drawn into a conversation with a jittery diabetic (Sheryl Crow) in an out-of-the-way bar, and drives off with her – determining from her drug use and general carelessness that the woman doesn’t really want to live, he lets her take a quaff from a hip-flask of amaretto laced with rare poisonous mushroom scrapings and drives away from her corpse. Renting an upstairs room from a small-town couple, Doug (Brian Cox) and Jane (Mercedes Ruehl), Vann drifts into a job as a postal worker and a low-wattage relationship with fellow employee Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo) but still occasionally indulges his passive-aggressive serial killer act, letting a local high school football hero (Eric Mabius) take a hit from his flask and dosing the iced tea of a testy customer (Lew McCreary, who wrote the novel) in a diner. He imagines conversations with some cops (Dennis Haysbert, Dwight Yoakam) he has evaded in the past, and remains little-suspected even as his poisoning spree starts to make local headlines.
Wilson’s reactive, curious, detached sociopath is one of the oddest, and most interesting of the recent crop of movie serial killers – to the extent that he seems almost not to be a murderer at all but a facilitator of others’ fates (in the way that he carries their mail) and simply sets things up in such a manner that accidents will happen. It has a 1970s road movie feel, especially in the unique and convincing almost-relationship between Vann and Ferrin (which leads to an uncomfortable scene where Vann finally pounces, and Ferrin – who has invited this all through the film – reacts as if she’s seen what he really is) and the plot-thread about fucked-up Dad Doug’s more obvious mental meltdown (Cox, of course, has his own serial killing associations). Wilson and Garofalo show how great they can be if cast outside their usual comic personae: if the Academy paid attention to indies like this, these would be awards-quality performances – Garofalo, in particular, is so far outside her comfort zone that the film ought to have redefined her career and shifted her into major dramatic work; Wilson has fared better thanks to hanging around with Wes Anderson, but is still most often found as a likeable, laid-back surfer dude who might be good company (a theory The Minus Man tests to destruction).
Written and directed by Hampton Fancher (whose most notable credit is the first draft of Blade Runner): he takes things slowly, presenting a protagonist who is only slightly out of kilter with a world of disappointed folks, unclaimed mail, fudged relationships and unresolved questions. It makes an interesting double-bill with Clay Pigeons, also with Garofalo, in which Wilson’s occasional co-star Vince Vaughn plays another drifting murderer in a small town tangle.