Review: The Empty Man (Prior, 2020)

Starring: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, and Stephen Root

Grade: B-

There’s nothing more fun than a mystery that revels in its own ambiguity. Recent Neo-Noirs like PTA’s Inherent Vice and the severely under appreciated Under the Silver Lake from David Robert Mitchell have joined the canon of films where, without clear cut answers, fans can argue and theorize about the unexplained forever. David Prior’s The Empty Man, a horror mystery-thriller loosely based off of a Boom! Studios comic book of the same name, comes exceedingly close to joining the party, but disappointingly falls short in favor of its self-perceived brilliance. 

Ex-cop James (Dale) is our hero, a depressed loner suffering from grief by the passing of his wife and child some time ago. When the teenage daughter of his close-friend Nora (Ireland) goes missing, he makes it a personal mission to find her, despite an ongoing investigation by active police. His first clue: the daughter’s mysterious obsession with “The Empty Man”, a folktale creature akin to “Bloody Mary” which, when summoned through ritual, consumes the conjurer until death. What unfolds is a horrific through-the-rabbit-hole odyssey of cults, surreal dreamscapes, and meditations on the nature of existence.

This movie is special among its peers solely by its enormous ambition. It clocks in at two and a half hours, features a 20+ minute prologue that could act as its own short film, and comfortably takes its time to allow the atmosphere to choke an audience rather than rely on cheap scares. Its backing by a major studio (more on that later) and mostly-enigmatic narrative are refreshing and unparalleled. This is a film made for an adult audience, more specifically, one that enjoys these types of movies: it’s very bold in its execution. 

The central mystery and what comes of it is genuinely gripping, often moving toward unexpected places in even more unexpected ways. While the gloomy aesthetics and obvious influences are ever-present, the fearlessness of the narrative and its engrossing implementation allows forgiveness. However, in the Third Act, right when it matters the most — right when you think it’s possible for The Empty Man to run in the same circles of conversation as Perfect Blue or Mulholland Dr., it shits the bed. 

Almost all of what makes the film interesting is given a late in the game exposition dump that spoon-feeds the viewer as though they couldn’t pick up on all of the clues laid before it. It’s so blatantly transparent in its masturbatory deluge: What made the movie interesting and cool is now telling you why it’s interesting and cool — and nothing is less cool than that. It’s such a misstep that, while there are still things left to ponder as the credits roll, it makes you think the film is less brilliant and more a shrugged who cares, it’s cool! contemplation.

Despite this massive letdown, The Empty Man is still very much worth watching. The film was made by 20th Century Fox before the Disney acquisition, and it’s clear the house of mouse had zero clue what to do with it, thus giving it a theatrical release in October ’20 during a global pandemic with no fanfare. Horror fans won’t let it die, and it’s finding a second life online through word of mouth. While it’s far from the masterpiece it thinks itself as, the bone chilling set pieces alone are worth the look. 

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