Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson) is a serial killer who poisons his victims; he explains that he feels he is helping them and that they die without pain. After killing a heroin addict named Casper (Sheryl Crow) he met at a bar, he makes her death look like an overdose and moves on to a new town. The next day, he arrives at the home of Doug and Jane Durwin (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl). He rents out the room of their missing daughter. Doug recommends he look for work at the post office, as they are hiring seasonal help for Christmas.
Vann is shown retrieving a kit from under his car. It contains the poison he uses on his victims, which he places in a flask and fills with amaretto.
Doug takes Vann to a high school football game, where he meets Gene (Eric Mabius), a star athlete, and his family. A few days later, Vann offers the boy a ride and murders him, burying his body on a beach. While he is digging the grave, Vann has an imaginary conversation with two detectives, Blair and Graves (Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert), who stand over him, asking taunting questions about his methods. Throughout the film, Vann has imaginary conversations with the two detectives.
Vann helps the town search for the missing athlete and even attends his memorial service. Vann reveals that killing Gene broke two of his personal rules: don't kill anyone you know, and don't kill anyone from your town.
His ties to the community grow as he is given more responsibility at the post office. One of his co-workers, Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo), sheepishly pursues him. Doug drives Ferrin to the beach. The pair exchange an awkward hug, directly over the spot where Vann buried the high school football player.
On Christmas Day, Vann goes to a diner and chooses another victim (Meg Foster). She invites him to her home, where he sees that she is a painter. Something about her work disturbs him and he flees. Vann returns to the diner and slips poison into the water of a man (Lew McCreary) eating alone. An autopsy reveals that the death was the result of a rare poison derived from tree bark fungus found in the Pacific Northwest. The poison is then linked with the murder of Casper. The young athlete's body is found and also linked to the same poison. Vann knows that the police will eventually tie the murders to him. While looking in the mirror, he pulls hairs off his jacket and puts them in an envelope on which he writes 'FERRiN'.
Jane is found dead from a blow to the back of the head. The police suspect Doug, but Vann is worried that the increased scrutiny from another murder will lead the police to him. During a date with Ferrin, he tries to initiate sex by assaulting her. She is terrified, and Vann leaves.
The next day, the police arrive and arrest Doug for the murder of Jane. Vann packs his things. Before he leaves town, he puts his postal uniform and the envelope marked "FERRiN", containing the sample of his hair, in a mailbox. The film ends as he drives on the highway, saying that he that he wants to lead a more regular life once he gets to wherever he is going. He is pursued by a cop who had earlier approached him on the beach. After taking a good look with her spotlight, she smiles at him and takes the right fork in the road, while Vann takes the left.Owen Wilson as Vann Siegert
Sheryl Crow as Casper
Dwight Yoakam as Detective Blair
Dennis Haysbert as Detective Graves
Alex Warren as State Trooper
Mercedes Ruehl as Jane Durwin
Brian Cox as Doug Durwin
Janeane Garofalo as Ferrin
Meg Foster as Irene
John Vargas as Priest
Eric Mabius as Gene
The film has a 61% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert called it "a psychological thriller of uncommon power maybe because it's so quiet and devious". In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote "it is above all such an unsettling experience you find yourself still taking it all in well after the lights have gone up".
In praising the film, Andrew Sarris writing for the New York Observer said, "A surging undercurrent of black comedy drives us out to sea without ever breaking to the surface with glib psychological or sociological explanations. We cannot laugh out loud, nor can we feel any grief." Sarris singles out Garofalo's performance as "incandescent ... one of the most enticingly endearing female movie characters in recent years – witty, bubbly, but at the same time lonely and terrified of rejection." Glenn Lovell described the film as "an assured blend of Camus and Hitch's small-town classic, Shadow of a Doubt" in his Variety review.
The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Shooting Gallery 's The Minus Man promotional campaign and materials, like many independent films (see Sony Pictures Classics' When the Cat's Away and Miramax's The Crying Game) tried to spark discussion/word of mouth among audience members after they left the theater. In addition to the tagline "Don't see it alone. Unless you like talking to yourself," one trailer for the film showed a couple discussing the film as they leave the theater. Their conversation takes them from place to place all over the city, until the man (played by Eddie Ifft) marvels at how beautiful the sunrise is. The woman (played by Marin Hinkle) realizes she is late for work and rushes to her job as a lifeguard, where two people are floating dead in the pool. The ad ends with the tagline "Careful, you can talk about it for hours." They partnered with local coffee houses and bars to provide opportunities for these supposed hour-long conversations.
The main trailer featured the tagline, "When he's around nothing adds up" and touted the film as the product of "the producers of Sling Blade" and "the writer of Blade Runner and The Mighty Quinn".