Reviewed Jun 22, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
The serial killer film has over the course of the last century emerged as something of a genre in its own right, centered on both the enigma of the serial killer and the need for special criminological attention to identify, categorize and catch him. A number of these films have sought to examine the killer outside of these new and developing law enforcement methods, in the effort to provide a sociological and psychological context, or profile. These films face an uphill struggle in their effort to somehow understand or explain a character type that has become the epitome of unknowable humanity. The films that seek to explore the character beyond the private sexual importance of the ritual of murder have in turn given rise to a number of significant themes – serial murder as self-aggrandizement and perhaps most importantly, self-actualization. With increasing frequency, the serial killer films since the mid 1980s especially (and the seminal Michael Mann film Manhunter) have proposed the notion that the killer believes that in murder he is becoming the ideal image of himself as sustained in his private fantasies and must continue to murder in order to maintain this process of almost delusional psychological metamorphosis. It is this theme that The Minus Man toys with most engagingly.
The Minus Man concerns a nomadic serial killer (played by a deceptively mild and even sweetly sympathetic Owen Wilson). Poison is his preferred means of murder (even though this is traditionally a woman’s weapon) and after dispatching a junkie (Sheryl Crow) he drives into a small town. Deciding to stay, he rents a room at the house of a depressed couple (Mercedes Ruehl and Brian Cox) whose daughter has left them. Soon Wilson observes the attention these townspeople lavish on their high school football heroes and his mind starts to work. He seizes the opportunity to set events in motion. The town tragedy behind him, he gets a job at the local post office as a mail carrier during the Christmas season. There he meets co-worker Janeane Garofalo, a lonely young woman who longs to develop a connection with him. Slowly their relationship develops as Wilson seems a non-entity in the town. However, he befriends both Ruehl and Cox who may see him as a surrogate child. Indeed, it becomes probable that Wilson is in part acting to what they may see in him. Soon however there is a disappearance from within his established circle of contacts and the police begin closing in. As they do Wilson begins to question why he remains there against his own better judgment.
On the surface, Wilson represents the gulf between appearance and actuality. He is a mild man, rather pleasant in a non-entity kind of way and people seem to easily warm to him, even if he may be just toying with their trust in some cases. He admits that he seeks to understand and relate to the people around him. That this limited empathy does not stop him from killing however offers the key to his personal psychological fantasy and as Wilson’s thoughts are presented in voice-over, the role of murder in his enigmatic make-up becomes provocatively clear. He is aware of his function as a nobody and in his calm demeanor seems at ease with it. However, his means of murder speak otherwise and it becomes clear in his murder of the football hero that he kills in order to be a person of consequence. He wants in a sense to control fate and kills because in so doing it allows him to believe that he is indeed influencing the course of events, able to alter and control the lives of those around him. He says he doesn’t plan, but seizes the moment as if usurping fate and turning it to his will. His moral detachment makes his crimes akin to experiments. Thus, he lingers in the town in order to see the consequences of his actions unfold. In this way, he genuinely seems to believe, and thus sporadically rationalizes, that he is in a process of self-actualization: murder has become for him a primary means of self-definition.
In his cool efforts to play fate he succeeds only in moral indifference. The remnants of his conscience take the form of two imaginary detectives on his trail who he talks to in an internally dramatized introspection. Capture would end his process of self-actualization and this fantasy is his way of dealing with it. When he insinuates that murder is a means of taking the initiative it is clear that he is obsessed, in his nondescript manner however, with the idea of consequence. His gentility is ironic although seems to appeal to emotionally desperate people. Amusingly, the only time he is disturbed is when he sees the suicidal paintings of a local artist, as if suicide is somehow a confrontational prospect for a murderer, one that prompts him to flee into momentary confusion. Part of the unease of this film is that it hints at these themes and prospects without dwelling on them or explaining them, allowing the viewer to make what they will of it. Ironically, the only time he is overtly violent is when faced with the possibility of sexually intimate tenderness – showing that despite his manners, he is unable to relate to people and thus remains essentially a cipher, a man who kills in order to feel the power of setting in motion acts of consequence, in his mind – whatever other pretences he may hold on to. Once again the serial killer remains enigmatic and essentially unknowable – an aberrantly fascinating American enigma.