The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★★

What the fuck was that? What the FUCK was that?

These are the words James Badge Dale’s character utters about mid-way through this wild ride of a film after a dramatic midnight encounter in the woods. As if he’s become the surrogate for the viewer’s own befuddled mental state at this particular moment. Indeed, James: what, the actual fuck, was that?

It’s a question I found myself asking repeatedly throughout, but for all the right reasons. This is a film so brazen and bold in design and ambition, I can’t help but feel slightly in awe of it. I found it fascinating, not least because it doesn’t seem to adhere all that strictly to the more obvious trappings of its genre. It is a horror film, yes—one that dabbles in the paranormal, Lovecraftian dark myth, and the extremes of cult practice—but for much of its runtime it plays out like more of a noir procedural, only to then shift into the realms of existential, temporal sci-fi in its final act. It even has its very own version of the jaded, out-of-his-depth private detective as a protagonist—a man haunted by his past, who starts to lose his grip on reality as his pursuit of the truth boils over into obsession. Writer-Director David Prior shows a broad knowledge of genre tropes here, which are a fun detail to pick out as the film progresses. The whole thing is so genre-omnivorous, it reminded me very much of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List—especially its conclusion, which pulls the rug from under us in similar fashion. It’s a really unusual but completely engrossing film; a confounding, nightmarish blend of images and ideas that simply refuses to conform to the viewer’s expectations.

It’s honestly a film that I find hard to sum up in any way that makes remote sense. Without question it offered up some of the most unsettling horror imagery that I’ve seen in a long time (the aforementioned scene in the woods, centred around a fireside cult ritual, is so perfectly crafted, it gave me genuine chills). As a synthesis of ideas and metaphors surrounding grief and trauma, this is arguably one of the more inventive efforts to have reached our screens in recent years. It’s central entity, the titular “Empty Man”, appears to bridge the plane between the physical and the metaphysical; and as such, the material and mental manifestations of those in the throes of their own grief. It is a spectre that seems to prey purely on those who are most vulnerable; a facet that is smartly tied into the film’s exploration of cult worship—a practice that itself thrives by preying on those who are the most emotionally exposed.

The film’s final reveal—where it enters full-blown cosmic horror territory—is probably the moment where many viewers will mentally check out. It is “out there” for sure, but it tallies with so many of the hints and small details the film has drip-fed us up until this point. It worked for me, but I can see why it might throw off others. Chiefly, though, the film is just such an absorbing and atmospheric watch. A labyrinthine puzzle of perplexing clues and haunting, claustrophobic environs that our protagonist has to weave his way through in his search for the truth. James Badge Dale is so good here—makes me wonder why we don’t see him in more mainstream leading roles. He was great in the highly underrated The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, too.

I watched this a couple of nights ago and it has really stuck with me. A sure sign that a movie is doing something right. Can totally see why this is slowly being recognised as a cult classic in the making. Prior is one to watch.

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