Owen Wilson, as blond and blase as a Beach Boy, hardly looks the part of a psychopath, which makes him perfect for the role of Vann Siegert, the amiable antihero of "The Minus Man," a vaguely menacing, vaguely filled portrait of the serial killer as a young man.
Written and directed by Hampton Fancher (co-writer of "Blade Runner"), the movie has very little in common with that visually cacophonous sci-fi classic. "The Minus Man," which Hampton adapted from Lew McCreary's cult crime novel, is as placid as the vacuous Vann.
The character, a California drifter, is no flesh-eating ghoul but a member of the Norman Bates school. Except not quite so creepy-looking. When he isn't driving around aimlessly, Vann chooses a victim, plies him with poisoned amaretto and disposes of the body before moving on to the next town.
After putting a junkie (pop diva Sheryl Crow) out of her misery, he stops in a scenic coastal village where he rents a room from a brooding couple (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl). He gets a job at the post office, where he is pursued by an overeager colleague (Janeane Garofalo). Then folks start disappearing.
Nobody suspects Vann except the two phantom detectives (Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert) who live in the killer's head. Their imaginary interrogations prove worthless when it comes to learning what makes Vann such a naughty boy. "I've never done anything violent to anybody," he protests. "There's no fear, no pain; they just go to sleep."
There's the danger that you will go to sleep, too. As the brain police say, Vann's "a cipher, a zero." And the movie really hasn't anything to say about mass murderers that hasn't been said a hundred times before, usually by neighbors: "He was such a nice young man, so polite. Sure, he kept to himself. . . . But we never suspected a thing."
The Minus Man (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.