VOD film review: The Empty Man
James R | On 31, Oct 2021
Director: David Prior
Cast: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Stephen Root
“The empty man made me do it.” That’s the cryptic note left behind by Amanda (Sasha Frolova) when she goes missing in Missouri, leaving her mother, Nora (Marin Ireland), worried and perplexed. Nora’s friend, James (James Badge Dale), decides to use his skills as a former police detective to investigate. What he unearths is an unsettling mystery and shady movement that leaves him staring into the figurative abyss.
James, we discover, is recovering from his own loss, after the death of his wife and son in a car accident. That grief is what’s driving him now – he’s a shell of a man who is trying to get from one day to the next and find something to fill him up. James Badge Dale is fantastic, delivering a physical performance that carries the weight of his existential uncertainty across every inch of the frame – he’s a slow, stoic, purposeful presence on the surface, but a landmine of inner conflict simmering beneath. That feeds subtly into his actions within the procedural crime narrative; he’s an alert investigator looking for answers as much as he warily shrinks back from the outside world he encounters.
If that were everything going on in The Empty Man, it’d be a more than adequate neo-noir thriller, but writer and director David Prior has more ambitious things on the brain. That becomes apparent from the dazzling introductory sequence, a 20-minute cold open that almost plays out like its own short film – a chilling fable of four friends up a snowy mountain, who stumble across a menacing cave near their cabin.
What this has to do with the events in the Midwest more than 20 years later gradually becomes apparent, but what’s striking is how long Prior takes to show his hand – and even then, how enigmatically he waves it around. It’s a confident, uncompromising feat of storytelling, one that uses the resulting need for patience and drawn-out longing for explanations (the runtime is 137 minutes) to feed into its overall themes.
The film is based on a graphic novel of the same name, which is set in a world where a psychic virus has seen a wave of violence fan out across civilisation. Prior very loosely takes that concept of contagious cognitive influence and reworks it into a what could almost be a prequel to that apocalypse – there’s a doom-laden tone looming over everything here, as James comes across a cult that seems to be winning over young people.
How is that connected to a sinister self-improvement organisation, led by Dr Arthur Parsons (an unnervingly self-assured Stephen Root)? And who, or what, is the “empty man” making people do things? From kidnapping to breaking and entering, James relentlessly hunts down clues, and Prior repeatedly frames him as standing on the threshold between light and dark – either stepping into greater awareness or disappearing into shadowy voids. The visuals are gorgeous, one minute seeing fire leap into the sky, the next shrouding everything in nothingness. Throughout, James is painted as a sole figure in contrast to the creepily choreographed groups of strangers around him. Thanks to the impeccable sound design and atmospheric soundtrack, even the sight of him lingering on the outside of a therapy group, hoping to eavesdrop, is nail-biting.
Are they waiting for him? Or is it all in his head? What’s certainly true is that James emerges as just one of many people all itching to feel something bigger than themselves – one of the most striking shots is of someone sitting in a lotus position, quietly stationary as they stay receptive to any inspiration that might strike. While all this sounds heavy-handed, The Empty Man also has a dark playfulness to it, toying with horror tropes and expectations as the story shifts from one genre to the next. Even our protagonist is suffering from trauma not only for very human reasons but also because he’s been written that way, as that’s what will resonate – the film very much sees the world as a place where everyone is pained and looking for deeper meaning and propose.
Thought plus concentration and time equals flesh, Dr Parsons declares at one point. That relationship between thinking and being gets near to the heart of what makes The Empty Man’s conceptual eeriness so scary, but it’s also reflective of how the film itself has found its own cult following since it was quietly released in 2020. Despite its daunting runtime and mind-bending narrative – qualities that recall Ari Aster’s Hereditary – it’s a story that resonates because people are open-minded enough to let it. They heard about it, they saw it, then it found them. Once you’ve reached its end credits, don’t be surprised if you’re compelled to tell someone about it too.