Serial killers tend to make easy subjects for films and novels because their impulses and fetishes extend so far beyond identification, they're almost less human than the howling monsters in old Universal horror movies. If nothing else, The Minus Man deserves credit for defying this ugly tradition and bringing its laid-back evildoer closer to the more disturbing everyday model of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. It helps that first-time director Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner, chose Bottle Rocket's immensely likable Owen Wilson for the part and uses the actor's natural charm as a major element of his sinister elusiveness. A drifter heading down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, Wilson stops in a quaint small town and takes the upstairs room in a house owned by Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl, a married couple dealing with the loss of their daughter. His sweet, open demeanor quickly wins them over, and the other locals, including post-office clerk and romantic interest Janeane Garofalo, follow in short order. ("They come to me like moths because I shine," he confesses.) As he insinuates himself into their lives, people begin to disappear and no one suspects that he's the culprit. The Minus Man never explains much about Wilson's motives or methods, which is tantalizing at first but gets more frustrating as the film wears on. There's some suggestion that killing is part of some existential experiment, a way of measuring his presence in the world. Or, considering the non-violent, almost discreet means by which he leads people to their deaths, maybe he believes his actions are humane. The Minus Man leaves so many questions hanging in the air that its strangeness ends up more intriguing then substantive. But Wilson's magnetic performance and the film's eerie, melancholic mood are not so easy to shake.

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