The Empty Man

The Empty Man (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

David Prior’s “The Empty Man,” based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, already clocks in at about two hours and twenty minutes, but I believe this is a rare instance in which a horror film might have benefited had it possessed a running time closer to three hours. It is a long journey, filled with curiosities, mysteries, and terror—which opens in 1995 as two American couples stumble upon an ancient entity in Ura Valley, Bhutan at the end of their five-mile hike. This pre-title sequence leads us to believe that the story will be supernatural horror in nature. But the deeper it digs, my mind couldn’t help but think about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Perhaps it is because there is a palpable sense of foreboding about it. Cut to 2018, we follow a former detective named James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) who chooses to help a neighbor (Marin Ireland) when her daughter (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. “The Empty Man made me do it,” is smeared on Amanda’s bathroom mirror and it is written in blood. Despite this ominous message, the cops have reason to believe it is a straightforward runaway case. Yet something tells James that the scenario is a bit off and so he decides to interview one of Amanda’s friends at the high school. Again, there is the mention of The Empty Man.

According to urban legend, if you find yourself on a bridge in the middle of the night, come across an empty bottle, and blow on it, you’d hear The Empty Man’s footsteps on the first night. On the second night, you’d actually see it. And on the third, you’d feel it—because it found you. What’s brilliant about this picture is that we are presented the source of this urban legend—the extended pre-title sequence in the Himalayas. And so when the core is chiseled and misshapen by time and word-of-mouth, we remain to have a solid reference. I wished more horror movies that deal with modern urban legends possess the patience that this work offers.

I enjoyed watching Dale as a man who is both guilt-ridden and in mourning of his wife and young son’s passing. We see glimpses of his nightmares, how he wasn’t there when his spouse lost control of the vehicle on the icy road. Dale plays James as a man who wants to move forward—choosing to take on mysterious case on an unofficial capacity—but his past holds him back like a giant boulder. As the Amanda case gets more bizarre, we can read in Dale’s eyes that perhaps James had bitten off more than he could chew. But he cannot quit; he is too entrenched.

Here is a story in which an argument can be made that the supernatural angle is less scary than what is really going on. Because in the former, without giving important details away, only minimal evidence can be found, circumstantial at best. Myths, rumors, and urban legends—they’re just words that can be heard, read in books or online articles and blog posts. But when there is tangible proof that something sinister is afoot, one that involves people in your lives, this is far more chilling because it forces you to re-evaluate how you’re living your life, how you see random people in the street, and perhaps relationships closest to you.

This is the point when the movie begins to fall apart. The overall mystery is fascinating and the lead character is someone we wish to follow, but because the film, especially since it is of a certain genre, feels the need to wrap up under a time limit, the resolution is rushed to the point where it gives the impression that it is uninterested in tying up loose ends. Clearly, the writer-director is more than capable of doing so because the work has proven its patience and penchant for details. When the film is already nearly two hours and thirty minutes, the correct choice is to take the story to completion even if it requires an hour more.

“The Empty Man” misses the mark by a hair.

7 replies »

  1. i think i’m going to see if i can check this one out. Is it on netflix or amazon prime?

    It’d be good to drop a comment on the reviews in the comment section if it’s available on netflix or AP. Of course you could date your comment something like “Available on netflix as of 1/27/21” as we know titles come and go on these platforms all the time. Just something to consider if you think about it as you post; if not, no big deal.

      • i just looked at the trailer and it looks so lame to me, but your review makes it sound like I should give it a go, but I am hesitant b/c like you said it falls apart in the last act just as the most intriguing part of the story is revealed; without even seeing it, i can tell you’re most likely right it could have benefited from another hour, or so; possibly been made into a 3-part mini series. I trust you are right here b/c I have seen too many potentially great films miss the mark by rushing the story and forcing an ending that doesn’t feel congruent with the narrative and the pace of the story, and completely ruins what it could have been…

        I am on the fence about this one. B/c I think it probably would hold my interest so I wouldn’t turn it off, but would only set me up for major disappointment when the last act is rushed and forced; which makes me more mad then when a movie just sucks, and I turn it off so I didn’t waste my time. In cases like these, I am upset b/c I wasted my time, and that the writer/director wasted an opportunity to contribute a great movie into the cinematic universe…

        But then again, you and I disagree a lot of the time, but i think we’re typically on the same page as far as structural integrity of the story goes, which is why I think you’re most likely right on your assessment, and why I’m hesitant to watch. I know I could just watch it, but there are a lot of other things I need to be doing. I like to be productive, but reserving some time for a quality movie is okay, but I hate wasting valuable time watching something that feels like a complete waste; which is why I turn so many movies off. When I watched “Force of Nature” I was watching it during the commercial breaks of a football game. lol. But I think I will try to start this one today or later in the week to see how it goes.

        • Oh my goodness, the trailer SUCKS ASS. It doesn’t even begin to touch what the movie is actually about. So, definitely don’t base your decision on whether or not to give this one a chance off of that.

          This one is a tough call for me. I liked a lot about a movie (the lead, the mystery, the extended introductory sequence, creepiness) but it has to work as a whole for me. If you do decide to see it, definitely go into it with a good mood because then maybe you’d be more forgiving. This one is a marathon, for sure.

          Oh, and a reunion between James Badge Dale and Robert Aramayo (did you spot him on “Nocturnal Animals”?). You know how much I loved “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek.” lol

          • yeah, i remember you loved TSASC, but I don’t recall any of those actors. I don’t remember anyone from Nocturnal Animals, either. Maybe it will if I watch The Empty Man soon. By the way, we may have had this discussion before, but Michael Shannon is in my top-tier of favorite actors. I think he has such a strong screen presence, and if not for Ledger’s all-time great performance in Dark Knight, Shannon could have won that Oscar for Revolutionary Road. I wanted to ask what do you think of Michael Shannon?

  2. Okay, I finally watched The Empty Man today, and I’m not really sure what I think about it. Pretty rare for me. lol. It had some good aspects, but it also had some lame aspects, like the bottle blowing was cheesy, especially the scene where the cult is sitting in that room, and he is spying from the rafter, and then they all blow into a bottle. lol. But I actually disagree with you about the ending, and think it actually made the overall film better…

    I think the film dragged and was much slower than it needed to be, so I think the film should have been cut 30 minutes opposed to you, thinking it should have added 30 minutes (or an hour). I thought it just felt redundant for the most part, especially the 2nd act, but I thought it got better in the 3rd act. So, we disagree about the ending, but i think I agree with you that this had the potential to be much better had it been better executed.

    • Maybe I wanted it to go longer because I really got into the groove of its tone and rhythm. I wanted more of it. But at least we agree that it is a missed opportunity. Maybe this will be remade 20, 30 years from now.

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