Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Ambition in film is almost never a bad thing. Better to try and fail than having never tried at all. The Empty Man is one of the most densely packed horror films I have maybe ever seen with a staggering amount of tropes and reversals at play. Some certainly work better than others, and the film’s impressive run time ensures that each thread is treated with a degree of detail rarely granted to the horror genre. This is both one of it’s greatest strengths and perhaps it’s most obvious weakness. While the lore of the film is enthralling and vividly conjured, the characters themselves are treated with far too much attention for how thinly sketched they are, and the more you learn about them the more faint their impressions become. Though The Empty Man is packed with jump scares and awestruck imagery, it cannot overcome the fact that it’s shoved several incongruous narrative ideas into one middling package.
The film begins in the 90’s, a group of young adults hike through a valley in Bhutan, when one of their friends falls down a crevice he is mysteriously possessed, staring at a giant, looming skeleton with extraordinarily long fingers. This striking image is maybe the films most enticing and mysterious, when a hooded figure appears in the snow the next day the terror we are supposed to feel doesn’t quite stack up against the frightful world building the filmmakers had already established. When the scenario quickly turns violent the shock is not so much at the menace or brutality of the murder but rather at the abandonment of the thick atmosphere in favor of cheap thrills.
After a belated title screen (about twenty minutes into the film, it’s no Long Day’s Journey into Night or Love Exposure, but still noteworthy) the film then cuts to 2018, to James Lambrosa (James Badge Dale) a former detective who owns a security store. After a few brief allusions to the grief that James experiences, a new mystery beckons to him when his friend Nora’s daughter goes missing. She and her friends attempted to summon an entity, the titular Empty Man, and it appears this supernatural authority is slowly picking off Nora and her comrades. From here the story fluctuates between Fincher-esque clinical complexity and genuine intrigue. There is a coldness to the performances and to the filmmaking that makes the more elastic and erratic plotting choices decidedly less fun than they should be.
This film is at its best when it alleviates itself of the stress of tying up loose ends and simply allows the madcap proceedings to reach maximum levels of insanity. There is an odd strain between the cloudy lucidity with which the film approaches its own narrative and the icy style that expresses almost no interest in the potential of the plot’s eccentricities, the actor’s too are similarly despondent to how zany this film is. This tension is never resolved and instead the film’s plot becomes a hazy mess of knotting and tangled ideas. While this is not necessarily to fault David Prior the film’s director, as this is an adaptation of a comic book, he’s almost too precise for his own good, he trades every exciting bit of ambiguity for miraculous revelations and all to clearly telegraphed twists.
The Empty Man is for all intents and purposes an unpredictable and at times unforgettable slice of genre cinema, only for how much it promises to execute and fails to do so, but it’s a nonetheless admirable film that will survive on the cult circuit for many years to come. With its inebriating sense of wonder and cosmic terror the film succeeds and although it fails to justify the clarity of its vision there is no shortage of surprises within. The Empty Man, though a flawed film, is by no means an empty gesture.