The Empty Man
The Empty Man subverts all expectations, delivering an exceptionally made slow-burn thriller that tugs at the very fabrics of reality through David Prior's distinct writing/directing and a dedicated performance from James Badge Dale.
Writer/director David Prior‘s The Empty Man is yet another Fox acquisition from Disney that is being dumped into theaters without much promotional fare, including a trailer (that was dropped a week before release) and a vague poster and plot synopsis. Despite all of that, The Empty Man succeeds as an ambitious slice of sci-fi/horror paranoia that’s wildly-edited, superbly-acted and downright evil in its execution. Those expecting another horror film about a faceless entity picking off deserving teenagers in rapid fashion will be massively disappointed as The Empty Man is about so much more.
James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) is an ex-cop turned owner of a home-security store, occasionally doing “private detective” jobs for family friends when the occasion calls for it. Most recently, he starts investigating a mysterious string of disappearances related to a local myth known only as The Empty Man. As the story goes, you whisper his name in an empty bottle on a bridge and soon you will start to see him, before he eventually comes for you.
The legend is rather vague and nonsensical, but things start getting serious as he investigates a missing family friend that is now the latest casualty in a somewhat quiet town that is experiencing a rather large amount of bizarre deaths.
The more James digs deeper the more he unravels information about a crazed cult that believes heavily in this supernatural being, which puts James in immediate danger.
I know what you’re going to say and let me just stop you right there. No, The Empty Man isn’t another one of those horror movies aimed at teenagers about a silly demon or creature that inflicts death on those that say his name or summon him. I mean yeah, the plot I described above kind of points directly to that, but The Empty Man is actually a movie about something slightly more diabolic, presenting that basic premise on the surface, but really digging into the meat as the film spirals out of control.
Or I should say as James Badge Dale‘s character spirals out of control. Because The Empty Man is entirely a one man show and that man leading the cause is JBD in what can be described as a dedicated performance that represents paranoia and an unhinged grasp on reality in the most rewarding of ways.
From the very first introduction, it is made very clear that James is broken and damaged in way that have left some serious scarring. Yet he functions with a half-smile, half-drunken look on his face that moves him through life, constantly looking back on his past. Watching James peel back the layers of mystery surrounding The Empty Man, fully knowing that he’s only making it worse, makes the film so damn interesting.
The Empty Man is a film that relies heavily on mood and how that correlates to reveal. Writer/director David Prior takes his sweet time establishing the unknown past of this “being” and he does this with a sprawling opening sequence that lays the groundwork in a way that feels restrained, yet informed in how Prior chooses to show select moments.
This creates a tense intro that’s absolutely drenched in horror, only for the film to sort of veer off into sci-fi/thriller territory as the story shifts its focus to James and his investigation.
The Empty Man is structured in a sort of wonky way that makes sense, but comes up short-handed on occasion. There are scenes in this film that absolutely look cool and add to the atmosphere of any given moment, but when you break them down you will be asking yourself just how much of that really made any sense and how much of it was there just to get the point across?
And those moments can be forgiven as the film surrenders to no one in its ability to go as dark and as disturbing as possible, whether that be through its imagery or through its story, which isn’t for those looking for an approachable thriller. The Empty Man is an R-rated movie with more than one moment of crooked morality and cold realization that comes foaming at the mouth in full-swing.
The editing of this film is a creative treat that takes ordinary horror moments and puts a spin on them in a way that makes the film feel daring and bold, but messy and rough.
The more I think about this movie the more I want to compare it to Richard Kelly‘s under-rated sci-fi gem The Box, which is a film that I hope will get its day in court. Where The Box takes a short-story and blows it up with ambition and style, The Empty Man takes a tired genre approach and swerves so hard off to the left.
I walked into The Empty Man expecting another predictable horror movie that was more worried about capitalizing on our craze for these strange supernatural entities that can be summoned with something as simple as a bottle and I walked out amazed by how weird and different the end result was.
David Prior‘s The Empty Man is a horror movie on the surface, but a sci-fi thriller when the dust settles. It’s a performance-driven drama that features James Badge Dale completely sinking his teeth into a role of a man that’s beaten down, confused and unwillingly to accept his past mistakes. The Empty Man is big and bold in its reach, even if it doesn’t completely shake out all of the flaws.
If you’re feeling up for the theatrical experience, then I urge you not to skip out on this one as I truly believe that Disney had no idea how to market this film and figured it would be easier to dump it then to invest a little more time and money to find the right audience.