The Empty Man (2020): Full of Entertainment and Empty of Boredom
Title: The Empty Man
First Wide Release: October 23, 2020 (Theatrical Release)
Director: David Prior
Writer: David Prior
Runtime: 137 Minutes
Starring: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
The Empty Man opens with a prologue set in 1995 Bhutan. A group of hikers make a chilling discovery in a mountain cave after one of their friends falls inside. Frightened by their findings and racing to get their injured friend to safety, the group finds refuge in an abandoned house. After the cold opening, we are transported in space and time to present day Missouri. An ex-cop, James (James Badge Dale), is contacted by his neighbor (Marin Ireland) concerned about her daughter’s (Sasha Frolova) whereabouts. After doing some digging, he learns that she and her friends recently performed a ritual from an urban legend to summon an entity known as the Empty Man. Soon, James will fall further down the rabbit hole as he seeks to find out the truth and save Amanda before it is too late.
Unfairly maligned and misunderstood, The Empty Man is a future cult classic in the making that we will all look upon more fondly in years to come.
What a ride. This film has a lot going on in spite of what is marketed as a brainless popcorn flick. It starts as a teen horror settles into more of a procedural before taking a sharp turn into a much more sinister direction. As it progresses, the audience is given less answers and more questions, which may frustrate viewers. I know I felt similarly once I reached the middle. It played out in a completely different direction than I anticipated, and it caught me off guard. You still have the typical issues that befall a film with its setup. Much of the character development and screen time is taken up by James, making it harder to feel invested in other characters. The teenagers are given the worst dialogue ever, so bad that it often evokes some secondhand embarrassment. All very forgivable things to me.
While I love how daring The Empty Man is with its story, I do think it is a bit much. It juggles way too many things at once which leaves some scenes as bursting with information while other stretches feel the need to justify the film’s long runtime. Learning that it is adapted from a graphic novel, it makes sense that the team tries to fit as many ideas as possible in here at once. I am not sure what to think about the rules of the film. There might have been some translation issues from the series to the scriptwriting process because by the end there are a few holes in the plot and a real need to trim at least ten minutes of extra fluff. Speaking of which, the ending verges on some cinema sins level bullshit that does incite a bit of irritation. I can, however, give it a pass because it doesn’t quite technically go there.
I’m still trying to decide if this film has a “deeper” message or anything particularly substantial to say, or if it is simply a movie that sets out to mindfuck its viewers. Both are valid! At the end of the day, I’m happy for any bigger budget venture in dark atmospheric horror that has solid technical accomplishments. The sound design is so immersive. Murmured whispers, tapping of hands and feet, blowing on bottles, all come together to form a symphony of unsettling sounds that will creep you out. This is especially neat, as they are repeated throughout the film in different contexts.
It’s also an exceptionally appealing film to watch from a visual perspective. The Empty Man is enveloped in this sleek and stylish aesthetic that never feels too cinematic yet highlights the natural beauty, or lack thereof, in its settings. Dazzling visuals of mountainsides, constellations, and cars driving through the forest are juxtaposed with haunting imagery of figures shrouded in fog, figures circling a bonfire, and the feeling of claustrophobia in underground tunnels. Even when the film gets dark, there are some really interesting uses of light. This is especially true James is spying by the cabins; the darkness amplifies the tension and fear of his situation and makes for an incredible scene. The Empty Man himself is a visual feast executed by great special effects work and a chilling design. The production values are here, people.
Not without its faults, The Empty Man is a surprising entry in 2020’s slate of horror films. With better marketing, a postponed release, and a bit of a trim, it easily could have been a hit. Even with its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, I found myself captivated by its bizarre story, unexpected scares, and great production values. Do yourself a favor and give The Empty Man a chance if you are in the mood for something offbeat. With the right attitude and proper state of mind, you’ll find yourself affected and letting The Empty Man take over you too.
Overall Score? 6.5/10