The supernatural is on a roll, and what better gift to filmmakers bent on rendering the id tangible and marketable? Not to mention the rest of us who can‘t dwell in peace with the inexplicability of life and have no religion to do the explaining. Nothing like a spot of ESP to soothe the vague anxieties that seethe beneath the search for truth in a world empty of meaning. Like all Hollywood tales from the beyond, Stir of Echoes is meant to sucker our fears out to play, then quiet them with the twin comforts of explanation and exorcism. The director, David Koepp, does the job with all the efficient professionalism bestowed by the digital age, laced with a welcome infusion of soul achieved by tying a familiar story of second sight to a respectful portrait of a working-class community in trouble.
Based on a 1958 novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote several Twilight Zone episodes and the screenplay for The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes transposes the book’s Southern California setting to a downscale but respectable neighborhood of Chicago, a town Koepp knows from the inside. It‘s an appropriately prosaic backdrop for the turmoil that’s about to roil within the breast of Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon), a working stiff who‘s grumpy about everything in his life but his pretty wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), and cute son, Jake (Zachary David Cope). Succumbing reluctantly at a party to a session of hypnosis by his kooky sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas, who as always appears to be stolidly repeating lines for the benefit of some tyrannical offscreen prompter), Tom finds himself periodically assailed by fragments of horrific images, and obediently begins hallucinating the usual special effects: rotting teeth, Stepford eyes, lurid red stuff seeping across the screen. A second session, meant to deprogram him, brings no relief, only a recurring vision of an agitated woman swanning around his living room and the realization that young Jake (played by Cope with a fetchingly dry wit, if that’s possible in a 6-year-old) has been chatting companionably with someone out there for a while. By the time Tom identifies the woman and heeds an ethereal message to start digging up the back yard, his private life is a shambles and the neighborhood is up in arms.
Spiced with snazzy intercutting and a jaggedly percussive score, Stir of Echoes winds nimbly around itself, dropping expressionist clues to the puzzle unfolding in and around Tom‘s addled head before tying itself in a neat climactic bow. It’s clever stuff, as scary and finally as reassuring as it needs to be to drum up box office, but very much by the book. The ghost story is not half as satisfying as the lovely indie mood piece tucked inside it about a community tending to itself in the wake of a recent wound. Shot in rich, dark tones by Fred Murphy and sensitively written by Koepp, whose screenwriting credits include the Jurassic Parks and several Brian De Palma films, Stir of Echoes would also be a fine portrait of a solid but threatened marriage were it not for Bacon‘s laughable impersonation of a prole. This normally capable actor has decided that blue-collar people look scuzzy, talk funny and slouch around in terminal sulk over their dead-end lives. Torturing his face into a gargoyle grimace, Bacon appears to have poured a truckload of gravel down his throat to produce a strangled wheeze that suggests Tom has been possessed more by a rotten voice coach than by a ghostly spirit. It’s the kind of showoff performance that will doubtless earn Bacon a ladleful of the accolades that greeted Dustin Hoffman‘s grandstanding in Rain Man, but in context he comes off so wildly at odds with the matter-of-fact dignity of the actors around him (Erbe is particularly impressive as the lone voice of reason) that for much of the movie he seems to be doing standup. Which may do wonders for him come Oscar time, but it sure murders the ambiance.
The Minus Man is super natural, a film that disdains explanation or comfort, unless you count the jokey subtext coursing through, as it does in most movies about violence these days. Directed by Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote Blade Runner and in his 60s has finally gotten to direct his own picture, the movie keeps its head close to the ground of the story, about a young man who kills serially, casually, quietly, without apparent motive and armed with no weaponry noisier than a bottle of Amaretto laced with something nasty. The understatement is a brave move, and a bracingly uncommercial one, for there’s nothing more terrifying — or aesthetically and psychologically frustrating for audiences schooled to expect grand finales — than the unknown remaining unknown.
Of course there‘s a price to be paid for straining so hard against genre conventions. The Minus Man is a film without attitude or mystery. We know from the outset that Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson) is a killer: As the movie opens, the young drifter takes a random left turn onto a highway, makes short work of a junkie barfly (Sheryl Crow) and moves on to a small coastal town, where he fades into the scenery, entering into local life with the earnest gusto of one who yearns to belong. Played by Wilson in a single key of amiable deadpan that makes your skin crawl even as you snicker, Vann is an almost-handsome nerd who wears his shirt outside his pants, a self-confessed cipher in whom the only sign of intelligent life is an attenuated fantasy world in which two cops (Dennis Haysbert and Dwight Yoakam, both very funny) close in on him with the relentless attention that, he imagines in a serenely nutso voice-over, will at last elevate him from a “zero” to a “fact.” Billeting himself with a local couple as loony as they are depressed, played with a cunning blend of wit and genuine drama by Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl, he corrals their trust and that of a love-starved postal clerk (Janeane Garofalo) by sympathetically drawing out their desperation while leaving a trail of corpses, which by some miracle or his overwhelming good nature no one attributes to him.
In The Minus Man the point is not, as with Scorsese or Tarantino, the spectacle of violence itself, which is passed over as quickly and nonchalantly as it is committed. Visual pleasure comes from a spray of water bouncing off a windshield, or a wistful woman standing at a window with her arms crossed over her chest. The acting is superb and the enigmatic script vibrant with Fancher’s wily economy. Yet so leery is the director of interpretation that one can‘t even call the movie — a cripplingly watery portrait of evil in a good soul — a study in character. Absent a guiding idea, Vann boils down to a naif with a moral screw missing here and there, and the film is left repeating itself endlessly in a void as impenetrable as the mind of its protagonist, until, at last, enigma thins into inconsequence, revealing The Minus Man as an exquisitely executed, and exquisitely banal, treatise on the banality of evil.