Patiño’s Lores and Myths: The Empty Man (2020)

Hello, dear reader! Our journey through the Monsterverse complete, I ask myself: what now? We’re not currently suffering from a lack of quality shows or movies, but I wanted to keep with the blog’s core theme if I could. Thank God for YouTube! Specifically, thank you, Chris Stuckmann. Because without him, I don’t watch this movie, I don’t write this blog, and I don’t lose myself to The Empty Man

In a small town with three or four murders a year, people begin dying in droves, leaving behind a simple message written in blood: The Empty Man made me do it. On the case of a missing girl tied to the strangeness, former undercover officer James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) becomes entangled in a web of mystery, cult worship and supernatural terror. As the case unfolds, reality and truth begin to bend, and James must confront whether The Empty Man is a mere tale or something more.

If that summary gives you little to go on, I apologize. It took me the better part of 40-minutes to put it together. It’s tough to talk about this movie in broad strokes because the one thing you absolutely do not want to do is give away too much. And folks, there is SO much to give away! This movie thrives on its mystery, having an audience live the experience lock-step with James, particularly in the first viewing. Beyond that, this movie’s shelf life will come from the discussions it generates. Writer-director David Prior (in his directorial debut, I may add) crafted a wonderfully dense and singular story. It’s a genre film that doesn’t play to the cheap seats or is interested in being a four-quadrant feature. It will alienate some, anger others and exhilarate a lucky bunch. Personally, I love this movie, but I’ve got some qualms. And oh boy, do I have questions.

I’ll talk general takes first, give my overall thoughts, but eventually, I’ll be getting into spoilers. I’ll put up a glaring warning before I do, so no need to worry. My rec: stop reading, watch it, then come back and engage! For now:

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW

This movie scared the s*** out of me. Big deal, right? But trust me. I don’t scare easily. Horror is my happy place! I’ve been in it since before I knew 1 x 1. It’s not that I’m desensitized; I’ve just seen a lot. But I still love a good scare! And while it doesn’t happen often, I can still get spooked. And this movie did it for me. It’s shocking to me that this is Prior’s feature debut, considering how confident the filmmaking feels. He has a clear love for the genre, both in how he embraces clichés and stages clever, effective scares. They don’t rely on empty jump scares for reaction’s sake. There is legitimate, white-knuckle, s*** yourself tension. This element is so crucial in good horror and something that many movies miss.

There are so many moments that had me just absolutely giddy. I couldn’t believe how good they were! The framing and camerawork were so wonderfully inspired. There didn’t seem to be much handheld work, so the camera’s stillness only added to the film’s overall eeriness. The movie is legit creepy as hell. Two sequences, in particular, stand out; one in a hallway involving a light switch, the other in a camp. Both exemplify pitch-perfect in-camera suspense and release. The reason these scenes work so well is because of their believability. You can see yourself in these situations, and the homegrown terror of it all makes it that much scarier. Simple staging, but my god, the payoff is through the roof! The strength of the compositions is only further exemplified by the incredible sound design. Seriously, writing about it doesn’t do it justice—the application of each sound, its implementation cuts to the bone like a fine razor wire. But it’s not only the use of sound but also its disuse. The filmmakers pull certain sounds at crucial moments, using the silence to tune up the dread. In the quiet, things like footsteps and crunching gravel go off like cannon fire.

But what will make or break this film for you is the story. It’s dealing with some very heady and complicated themes. Things that, straight up, mystify me. I won’t front; I missed some things here. I have so many questions! I won’t even claim that the story totally holds together. I won’t get into specifics here, but the story is… “complicated” is putting it easy. That first viewing is a wild ride, stringing together a series of questions that aren’t altogether answered. Watching it a second and third time, I struggled to understand what in the story was real. Purely from a narrative standpoint, you’re going to have to suspend your disbelief massively. The plot is incredibly intricate, bordering on absurd, which is by design. Prior states that the film’s fundamental truth is open to debate. That’s cool but also maddening. It’s a matter of whether that type of storytelling resonates with you. 

This is the last film to feature the 20th Century Fox logo, ironic considering the early days of Prior’s career-making behind-the-scenes DVD featurettes for Fox movies like Fight Club and Master & Commander. Big studios don’t make movies like this—a horror movie dealing in nihilism, cosmic horror, ambiguity, suicide, and self-induced psychosis. The specific ambitions of The Empty Man are not tailor-made for a 100 million dollar opening weekend. I wish they were. So the fact that a major studio let this thing happen is kind of a miracle. Props to those initial executives because the film’s journey to release is just as dramatic as the actual flick.

I won’t get into all of it, but halfway through production in 2016, they lost the executives who advocated for it and complications with the studio arose. Fox manhandled the production process, putting together a version of the film Prior called a “career killer.” That version screen-tested so much worse than the first test screening that they just let Prior have final cut, meaning he had the final say on all edits/changes to the film. It then sat on a shelf until Disney, post-takeover, buried it upon release last year amid a pandemic-stricken box office. The movie bombed, critics hated it, and it was forgotten.

At least, it was. Thanks to critics like Stuckmann, a cult following has sprung up, championing The Empty Man and all its glorious weirdness. I’m happy to be among them, and I do love this movie, even if it might not all add up.

There’s no spoon-feeding here. The information you need to piece out the answers is there, I’m sure, but you’ve got to be willing to put in the work. I majored in Journalism, so my whole thing is getting to the bottom of something. It makes movies like this very frustrating for me! I need things to make sense. I need to know how the cogs click together, what it all means! So when a movie doesn’t out and out give me what I need, I can get flustered. Either I’m too dumb, or the film is being a d***—passivity vs. critical thought. That will be The Empty Man’s largest hurdle to clear. The film won’t hit a broad audience, but the people who like it will love the hell out of it.

Okay, time for you to peace out if you haven’t seen The Empty Man yet, because it’s spoiler talk, baby! Definitely watch Stuckmann’s review. I’ll link to it again here. And if you want more Empty Man content, check out Secret Handshakes’ in-depth interview with the director. It’s long, but a great listen! And spoilery! Seriously, just watch the movie already.

 !SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!

How well does the story hold up? The reveal that James is a tulpa, he’d only been alive for three days, and that his memories were fake seems like a great twist at first, but my mind breaks a bit when rewatching the movie. How elaborate is the ruse put on by Amanda (Sasha Frolova) and the Pontifex Society? Because it’s not just Amanda; it’s her mom, Nora (Marin Ireland), and the cops who are investigating the deaths of Amanda’s friends. People outside of James’ purview seem to be a part of the story’s inner world, so what gives? People are clearly dying, as evident by Davara’s (Samantha Logan) death scene. Scenes happen away from James, so it can’t all be fake. We see Nora in the kitchen the morning Amanda goes missing, and she certainly acts surprised when she finds her daughter gone. This doesn’t jive well with the idea that her relationship with Jake was just all in his head. Is she a part of Amanda’s ruse? If not, then how is this all working? Ambiguity, man.

The theme of nihilism is fascinating, especially considering the ending; James is the Empty Man, the vessel for the Between One, who takes possession of James’ body. What we can assume comes next is Armageddon. I’ll give it to the filmmakers; they stuck to their guns. This over-arching belief in nothingness is a pessimistic approach and a tough sell, but Prior weaves the thread neatly to the end. It’s a theme that could come across as try-hard, edge-lord, emo-boy angst, but the film gives it weight. There’s a profoundness in how Amanda and the Pontifex Society approach the Between One’s dogma. The Pontifex’s whole pitch is the erasure of borders, of separateness. Of rubbing out individual thought in favor of a singular perspective. It’s a horrifying concept made all the worse when you take in that the Between One’s sole intent is chaos and blood. The only reality to prescribe to is this other. Such thinking frees you of responsibility and accountability. You don’t have to feel bad about hurting people because nothing matters. That is a genuinely frightening reality to enlist to. And I love that the movie has the guts to embrace it.

“The communicability of thought.” Those are Prior’s words, his intention behind the film. To confront how an idea can spread. Infect. Plague a population like a virus. And how people are willing to be stricken by it. The ultimate danger The Empty Man poses is that of insular realities. Whether it be “election fraud,” vaccine misinformation, or an ancient demon from the Noosphere, there is real risk in tying oneself blindly to a belief harmful to everyone else. All evidence to the contrary, yours is the truth. And there isn’t anything anyone can say or do to convince you otherwise. That, to me, is scarier than any tentacled monster. That, to me, is the true horror of The Empty Man.

From his thoughts come the dreams. From the dreams come the power. From the power comes the bridge. From the bridge comes the Man. From the Man comes his thoughts.                                                                 -Pontifex Society doctrine

— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.


Chris’ Bio:

Chris J. Patiño is a Lewis University graduate, having earned a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of such acclaimed film critics and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite filmmakers include Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro, with some favorite films being Rocky, The Thing, The Dark Knight, Star Wars: Ep. V- The Empire Strikes Back and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.


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