The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★★★

Internet-era riff on Cure and Angel Dust, that was an unfortunate victim of a botched marketing campaign and an unintentional proximity to creepypasta dreck like Slender Man. Like its influences, David Prior's supernatural mystery contains shades of cosmic horror, and an intense cult paranoia reminiscent of Koji Shiraishi's lo-fi found footage shocker Occult. In spite of its glossy veneer, The Empty Man is truly subversive, its length alone setting it apart from most studio horror fare, and even its sight gags – naming the high school after Jacques Derrida rivals John Carpenter's B-movie pranksterism – have a purposeful playfulness about them that has been largely absent from contemporary American genre cinema. Playing on Derrida's metaphysics of presence, The Empty Man is obsessed with the void of absence: "Nothing can hurt you because nothing is real." It's the absence of genuine meaning, experience and humanity, replaced with postmodern alchemy. The obscure Pontifex Institute, the cult at the heart of the film's mystery, claims to offer an end to suffering through vague relativist philosophy, but the truth is far more sinister – the endgame is apocalypse, not utopia.

The "empty man" – a concept, not a character – is the result of a cultural retreat into nihilism, pushed on a new generation as "positive nihilism" by the emotionally stunted henchmen of ideas industry figureheads seeking to remodel the world in their spiritually and aesthetically bereft, algorithm-driven image. From the juvenile, TED Talks cinema of Everything Everywhere All at Once – unsurprisingly the year's biggest indie hit – to the gospel of sentimental scientism preached by Midnight Mass via interminable monologues, audiences are bombarded with empty platitudes by media that's rotten with half-cooked musings, offering reassurance through continuous reinforcement – repetition and cliché. Existence is meaningless, but isn't that great? We're all made of star stuff. No deeper inquiry needed, that only causes discomfort. Bad feelings must be avoided at all cost.

In a pivotal scene, the leader of the institute quotes Nietzsche: "If you stare into an abyss, it also stares into you," a refrigerator magnet truism, supposedly rendered meaningless by constant repetition. "But when was the last time you really thought about that? What is an abyss?" The abyss is nothingness, and whoever gazes into nothingness long enough, will eventually become nothing, become empty. In Beyond Good and Evil, the ever-prescient Nietzsche writes, "Didn't people have to sacrifice God himself and, out of cruelty against themselves, worship stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, and nothingness? To sacrifice God for nothingness – this paradoxical mystery of the last act of cruelty is saved for the generation which is coming along right now." We're all being made into empty men, incapable of imagining anything beyond ourselves, our systems, or our dominant ideologies. After all, we don't need to. "You are complete in yourself," we are assured, and a hollow, empty culture feeds our narcissism by elevating passive consumption into activism, and brands into identity – the powers that be become the harbingers of pretend-progress and phony liberation.

"We can't indict the cosmos." The phrase uttered by the world-weary, seen-it-all detective in response to the grisly killings, hangs heavy over the back half of the film. It's a truth that has long lingered in the realm of clichés, but one that others have momentarily reclaimed from banality as well. As Flipper sang in 1982: "That's the way of the world."

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