Willow Maclay’s review published on Letterboxd:
Around the mid-way point of The Empty Man, our private investigator James Lasombra (played by James Badge Dale) finds himself at a meeting for the Pontifex institute, where blank-eyed pawns cling to the master of ceremonies (Stephen Root) like disciples of Christ, as he goes on and on about there being no such thing as loss. This is a manipulation technique rooted in the illusion of connection that charlatans like TV psychics and preachers use to scam money out of people who are hurting. That industry is worth millions of dollars these days, even though common-sense would tell you that it’s all bullshit. Director David Prior states in his interview with Thrillest that he’s always been interested in the mechanics of how cults are formed and maintained. He goes on to mention how he’s curious about the nature of people choosing to live outside of reality, because it feels safer than the truth. The truth is essentially what must be chipped away at for people to swaddle themselves in the lies of comfort, and we’ve seen this have a widespread effect with the likes of Qanon getting a foothold in American politics. Considering the super-powered state of that nation, and how the American people have been infected by the building of a tower of lies, it has become increasingly obvious that we are living through a period where the negation of hard facts has had extremely negative consequences on the world. In The Empty Man the members of The Pontifex institute state that you “can’t convict the cosmos”, rendering moral rights, bodies, souls, and everything inbetween up to fate. If nothing matters and there are no rules, then what does that say for us who still have a vested belief in what’s actually there? The Empty Man was made in 2018, before all of this had taken hold to such an extreme, but former President Donald Trump was still screeching about his fake news long before then. It seems intentional that David Prior sought out to make a movie that reflected this current battle for the legitimacy of the truth, and he did so while using his camera to lie about the very nature of what is put in front of us.
David Prior got his start making behind the scenes features for the DVD releases of David Fincher movies and it is necessary to consider Fincher’s influence when looking at The Empty Man. Prior opens the film with an extended sequence that suggests a cosmic rendering of Lovecraftian terror as four friends are stranded in the Himalayan mountains amid a blizzard. It’s a beautifully rendered short film version of the type of movie The Empty Man could be if it were interested in a straight-forward journey involving skeleton monuments, ancient curses and the like, but there’s a restlessness to what Prior wants to accomplish, and he is constantly looking for ways he can to sprawl wider, until he has touched many other sub-genres of horror filmmaking. He does all of this while adhering to the honesty of private detective Lasombra who is looking for Amanda (Sasha Frolova), the missing daughter of a woman he used to love (Marin Ireland), but with these constant additions to the rabbit hole of his investigation it becomes increasingly clear that whatever it is we’re seeing may not be something to trust. Detective Lasombra is unreliable in what he uncovers, because what he is being introduced to is a mountain of lies, that are only true in the minds of those who have bought into the fable of The Empty Man as a messianic doomsday cult figure whose praxis of nothingness is Utopian only in the sense that it means we all find our way into a grave someday. This is amplified due to Prior’s work with Fincher, as Lasombra’s pile of evidence is like that of Zodiac (2007) or Mindhunter (2017), but the difference is that Prior is using the mechanics of the procedural to introduce information that isn’t hard evidence, but conjecture. Because of these mechanics, and due to Lasombra’s belief in the chase, the lies become truth, and the obfuscation of what we’re seeing becomes ambiguous.
All that being said, The Empty Man is not as ponderous as it sounds, and has a well-educated history of horror filmmaking, having just as much in common with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as it does the cinematography of Gordon Willis in the 1970s. The Empty Man is not really a slasher, but the set-up is its own little hour long stalk and kill feature with its own rules. The Empty Man is a boogeyman for boozy teenagers under a bridge trying to scare themselves with the angst of town legends, but the old ghosts in these movies have a way of reaching out and taking back, like Candyman, like Michael Myers and so on. There are many lovely sequences and images earlier on that are paired with the procedural aspects that Prior has lifted from Fincher where the point of view becomes an investigator looking into each and every murder by this so called “Empty Man”. This could all very well be the hokum of bored teens, until it reveals itself as having a wider pool, and its slasher surface quickly transforms into a cult of murder, and an ideology of total post-human nihilism, but this is not before a Prior indulges in a foggy bathroom mirror and a gloved hand reaching out to take what’s his. This all gives credence to the fact that because Prior is so fidgety with what he wants his movie to be it eventually becomes anything and everything, which further strengthens the notion that his camera is lying to the audience. This could result in a messiness that undoes his intentions, but there’s a focus in tone and ambience that feels natural in the plotting, because he isn’t just skipping around wherever he wants, but adding onto an already stuffed proposition of fables and prophecy.
All of this intellectualism and precision of form would be null and void if the film weren’t also scary, and as Detective Lasombra digs deeper and deeper into Pontifex in the hopes of finding the missing girl he stumbles upon something monstrous; and it is the scariest moment in the entire film. Upon arriving at Pontifex training grounds “Camp Elsewhere” Lasombra finds a cabin stuffed full of folders with information about those dead kids, the pawns at the cult meeting and then finally of himself. He must be losing it, mustn't he? Including the folder of Lasombra is Prior’s way of diluting the very essence of fact and fiction, because if the mind of our hero is going the way of those bleary-eyed believers in the void, then can we trust anything he sees? With those same files there are VHS tapes with recordings of rituals meant to enact a higher ambivalent power, and Lasombra thinks he may have found the key evidence he needs to bring truth to light, and destroy this crazy cult that has taken the daughter of the woman he loves. The VHS tape is labelled “Manifestation B” and its contents are disturbing, because Prior has built to this moment as a grand reveal. Lasombra witnesses men around a table, a summoning of some sort, followed by a feeble looking man with dead eyes rubbing the blood of someone or some thing all over the walls to create an image. The effect is like something out of E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990), and then Lasombre turns his head to realize he’s in the same room where these things took place.
Prior then makes the smart decision to use a close-up of Lasombra’s eyes as he sees once and for all that whatever this is may be legit, and it’s there where he believes the lie, but the beauty of Prior’s choices up to this point, is that because the reality of the situation is slippery can we believe what we see? The fixation on eyes in this section seems obvious and there is a question of whether or not seeing is enough for resolute belief. Maybe Lasombra is in deeper than he ever intended. The VHS tape ends with a wide angle image of the feeble man staring into the lens, as if to say, that he is looking back at us; breaking the fourth wall in a totally exhilarating, frightening way.
When The Empty Man was initially set to be released by Fox Searchlight before Disney bought the studio and decided they didn’t have any use for an obtuse horror film about the damage of cults, there were plans to enact a Blair Witch Project (1999) like marketing campaign to suggest a meta-textual real world element to the film. There were plans to graffiti the walls of buildings with “Who is The Empty Man” and “The Empty Man Made Me Do It”. They also intended to release “Manifestation B” onto the internet with no explanation whatsoever behind its appearance. This in turn would have amplified the elements of the cult-like belief in something resting under the surface of everyday society, lurking, and maybe bigger than we could imagine. You’d have to be naive to have fallen for these marketing tactics and there surely would have been a dissatisfaction when it was revealed it was all for a movie, but then there were people who thought The Blair Witch Project was real when it was released so it’s hard to say. The Empty Man seems to understand that if you gesture towards something with enough conviction it can become a modern myth in the vein of Creepypasta’s internet ghouls. There is a playing with fire element to that type of procedure, which can have devastating effects in reality, but isn’t that merely the world we live in? We are seeing the internet have real tangible effects on day to day life and The Empty Man is aware of these things.
In his interview with Thrillest David Prior mentions being interested in ambiguity, and his film is doused in the word, because it doesn’t come to any firm conclusions. His ambiguity is not one of vagueness, because he is very deliberate in his choices of image and movement and what they mean, but rather an ambiguity that is closer to trust. He wants you to come to your own conclusion with what The Empty Man ultimately ends up suggesting, and it is because his camera lies with such conviction, that the deceit eventually starts to feel like the truth, but then maybe it is. Do you believe Lasombra? Do you believe what you’re seeing? By the end of the film Prior has so completely muddied the waters of what to believe that you begin to understand how so many people get sucked into a monument of collective ignorance presented as the truth. People love a lie when it’s comforting, when it makes the pain a little less unbearable, and there will always be people there to exploit that very real thing. Maybe it’s easier to believe in nothing, or to believe in someone who preys upon your fears, and tells you it’ll be alright if you do this and this and this. The tragedy is that living a life can sometimes be so blinding that it’s easier to give up on seeing altogether.
So, do you believe what Lasombra has seen or is he seeing with blinded eyes?