Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
If you stare into the abyss long enough the abyss stares back at you
This… is a f#cking debut…UAL…
Coming from newcomer David Prior, a director of MAKING-OFF VIDEOS for dvd extras from some of David Fincher and Coen movies, that somehow got blessed with the opportunity to tackle his own pitched project getting backed up by the old 20th Century Fox management. But I can only imagine that the merge with Disney just made nothing but harm the film that’s so clearly off studio banked projects, making it even harder to sell, which resulted in the movie being tossed over streaming services just to survive, and somehow it did with the most unusual indomitable strength!
To tell you the true I really don’t know how to properly review something that is able to be so much original in execution and tackling of Horror sub-genres together, while even if inherently flawed in its overall narrative execution that lingers too much over verbal padding in its own presented concepts, it still pulls off the frightening reactions through a secure helming overflowing in admirable ambitions.
From the first twenty minutes that feels like a completely different film on its own, going from a Lovecraftian supernatural territory, almost fooling you that’s going to be one of those down the mouth of hell set in a grounded territory films like Neil Marshall’s The Descent, delivered in such a steady slow pacing that savors its time on great build up, that soon takes the shape of a isolation horror in the middle of an inhospitable landscape that echoes The Thing and a semi-possession among the group , till it ends it all in a storm of confusion that scares you for the very lack of any explication to what in the hell is going on and how exactly this leads into the rest of what you are about to watch.
Then pum, the titles show up, and we time jump to a procedural horror investigation that too slowly becomes to reveal new layers as it goes, as we tag along ex-cop James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he investigates the disappearance of the daughter of his supposed girlfriend while facing his own demons in the process, and discovering the potential existence of others outside this plain of existence that we call reality, evolving a fanatical group of occultists and cosmic entities. As you see, so much packed with different layers of ideas that drips in ambitions, but that just help to turn the whole thing excruciatingly mind-scratching intrigue and admirable!
Is very much a conceptual horror of course at that, but not as so dull self-serious like an modern Ari Aster film, rather going in with a more anarchistic behavior about it, makes fun of itself with a subtle dark sense of humor through James character, constantly remarking the obvious: what the f#ck is going on. It never gives clear answers nor tries to harm undermining subtexts underneath it all, as the very lack of meanings and the cryptic flair behind it all, makes it all the more creepy.
But while at it, it manages in making us actually give a shit about the protagonist and his personal struggles. Dale is a great actor on its own, and his normal average guy look adds to the individual helplessness state of which his character is found from his first scene and on. In that, the film really takes a real classic horror shape, like making us feel that the characters are really slowly walking into a trap with no way back, and you find yourself being carried in a constant feel of apprehension for them, praying for the light at the end of the tunnel, knowing that it won’t be.
In its procedural investigation structure it does crosses path with existential character study like Se7en, as there’s also very clear Fincher inspire traits here, the very Fincher-esq precision, the well placed shots and the heavy dark green look. And the movie itself is very stylistically smart, while very economically simple in some of its visual trickeries: an eye blinking captured by a simple editing maneuver; a dark apparition showing up and made it creepy not by jump scares or loud music, just pure obnoxious presence alone; is graphic in some kills without being too explicit about it.
Prior is very classy and elegant with it all, creating a perfect comforting conventional urban look that slowly gets invaded by a looming darkness that slowly reveals itself, and he manages to be like that and execute the way he does because well… he’s really allowed it to. It reminded me Verbinski’s underrated gem A Cure for Wellness, another horror production that has a very noticeable big budget behind it, and also another result of old 20th Century Fox willing to give creative range for a director, but messing everything up at the release. Though Prior’s The Empty Man treats its horror elements with a far deeper dive in the supernatural with interesting choices.
Inadvertently or not, the film echoes a lot of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, almost as if the procedural tangled with the connection to the dark unknown from Cure got mixed to the supernatural invading the urban modernity, isolating what we know of existence itself from Pulse. Making the eery atmospheric supernatural getting tangled with the Cosmic horror threat.
It also borrows a little from Carpenter take on Lovecraft and the discussion of metaphysical reality from In the Mouth of Madness, in how the character by the end sees himself as just a created pawn for a means to a dark end out of his control, to a subtlety self-aware degree, the protagonist of a horror film getting sucked down by designs beyond his reach of control. Which is also where the film falls just a little too self-explanatory exposition by the very end “twist”, though even the ideas that are throwed in the mix there, increase the creepy level, and you get drowned into more confusion of ideas, which is definitely the intent!
As all comes down to the original core bone of what stands behind ideas, the vicious controlling evil entity known as belief, or better, in what we choose to believe. All that comes in the later half where the movie finally shows what’s aiming for, and just gets even more cryptic with its ideas of conceptualizations versus what is tangible, and the cosmic line of nothingness that separates the two.
In how we live in a reality where ideas that separate us into divergent perspectives comes as a result of planted fanatism created through the endless power of repetitions, the very mind trap we create to ourselves. That through some simple steps of: Intention, focus and repetition, it manifests in impregnated ideals, till you become a empty vessel for meaningless attitudes and ideas!
If it does point a critical eye at the way it portrays the evil organization here as a scientology cult, at first talking so much idealistic gibberish that can fit in any given narrative, what they say holds a somber truth, and it directly admits the connection with Friedrich Nietzsche famous quote:
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
The movie literally begins with people falling from an abyss, it can’t be more obvious than that. But it talks so much about the abyss in relation to what it reflects about you what you are made of, simply saying that: be careful of who you are fighting, be careful to what you think is just the absolute truth side of unquestionable righteousness, and anything outside is the blunt wrong racist sexist bigot unholy sinful evil.
Why? Because we are just two steps away from becoming like those we fight against when we become so bitter and filled of resentment, convinced that everything wrong with our lives are caused by someone or something after us, seeing evil in everything, to the point where you can see nothing but monsters. The impregnated ideals of oppression, of victimization, of us versus them!
And what is the abyss if not a void:
“whatever emptiness exists in the void is the core of you. If you have no moral core, the abyss will shine the brightest light on your emptiness. If you lack direction, the abyss will further distract you.”
The positive thinking and the bad thinking that is cited in the movie more clearly! But what if the void was a monster itself? Or better, a bridge to it to cross into our world?! A bridge to the void of the cosmos, feeding of the people of resentment, feeding of depressed suicidal like his first victim/vessel here, and from our very depressed cynical protagonist, and how his journey encapsulates that very existential threat getting in conflict with the impregnated belief of this supposed existing god-creature-entity of evil.
The idea that creates the empty man, the entity without meaning, without staples or ideas, just BEING, something that you can choose to think about it, to believe in it, to create it with your mind, and everything else outside that created concept turns into nothing. Reality loses its meaning, pure ideals become corrupted and controlled, relationships and losses become just ordinary staples to overcome coldly and bluntly. We and we alone chose to bring evil into this world through our thoughts and actions to sustain our blunt impregnated deals, however you may fit in: religious fanatism; political ideology; racial agendas, etc;
That’s the scariest point that The Empty Man suggests, allegorically taking the shape of a classic monster figure that deserves to become its very own little classic, coming from untrustworthy origins. A suggestive idea taking shape through the power of belief? A cosmic threat crossing into our world? A little kid’s folklore taking a demonic shape? All of them?! Maybe I’m myself am creating a complicated conceptualization that can become my own infallible truth that might goes against yours, but hey, we can choose to respect our different opinions and not create the demon of toxic divergence!
In more summarized words, this is quite simply the perfect horror late night watch. It gets you completely intrigued just by its first suggestive notes in the first half, keeps you going down a rabbit hole you don’t know where the freaking f#ck is this going, while you fight sleep to make it to the end, just to get there and completely fall haunted by it, making you think twice till you close your eyes again. And if pulls that off in a way that’s entertaining and engrossing manner?! Then you got something very truly special on your hands. We really don’t deserve nice things like this…