There’s a strong likelihood that you’ve never heard of Disney/20th Century’s newest release, The Empty Man, at least until a week ago when the first trailer was released. All signs would point to this film being some unmitigated disaster the Mouse House would rather dump to desperate exhibitors and see if anyone will show up rather than try to spend any precious money on getting the word out. Although The Empty Man is critically flawed in key areas, it’s truly not half bad.
The title might suggest a film alongside cheap teen fodder such as The Bye Bye Man and Slender Man, however The Empty Man operates as a messy, but always intriguing mystery thriller. Based on the Boom! Studios graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, The Empty Man stars James Badge Dale, one of this generation’s unsung character actors, as former detective James Lasombra. Haunted by a recent tragedy in his life, James is sent back into detective-mode when Amanda (Sasha Frovola), the teenage daughter of his close friend, Nora (Marin Ireland), goes missing leaving behind a message that reads “The Empty Man made me do it”.
From the start, it’s clear The Empty Man has more going for it than your typical late-October programmer. The film begins with a prolonged sequence that sets up a supernatural terror through some excellent use of suspense, even if this 20-minute opener could have easily been trimmed down 10 or so minutes. First-time director David Prior, known for his EPK work on films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network (whose Fincher influences come off rather well) and who also serves as screenwriter and co-editor, shows a clear grasp of visual storytelling. Although backed by a major studio, this is a good looking movie with a number of well-choreographed shots that harken back to that energetic flair found in 90’s independent cinema.
Interestingly, The Empty Man is the rare case of a filmmaker trying to display too many influences on screen at once. When the general plot kicks in and we find Dale investigating the legend behind the so-called “Empty Man”, Prior puts his influences on full display as the film (largely) becomes a chilly mystery with a supernatural twist that takes directly from Fincher’s Se7en.
Running at an egregiously long 137 minutes, Prior’s messy script allows the film to wander about too often in service of his directorial influences. One extremely unnerving sequence feels like it belongs in the “Blair Witch” franchise and another feels like a Giallo-inspired slasher. The Giallo-inspired murder sequence at a spa is eerie, but exists more so as a highlight reel for the director than a critical piece of storytelling. While many of these scenes are effective and the film is never boring, the pieces simply don’t all fit together.
Aside from some dodgy CGI, the technical work is as first-rate as most studio films should be, the sound design in particular does plenty to get under your skin. The brooding score by Christopher Young also delivers plenty of atmospheric goods.
James Badge Dale infuses The Empty Man with the proper amount of heft as the tortured hero and makes the film more investing as the plot occasionally dances around itself for a chunk of the middle act. When we are led to a cult-like research facility run by Stephen Root’s Arthur Parsons — not unlike his role in the Oscar-winning Get Out — the film goes to some very strange places, but Dale keeps your interest through his understated, lived-in performance. This is also a strong showcase for Marin Ireland, known for smaller, supporting turns in The Irishman and Hell or High Water. Both actors ground the film in enough of a reality to resonate even after the third act goes off the rails.
The film eventually has more in common with another 20th Century Fox black sheep, A Cure For Wellness than it does The Ring or Candyman. Both films perhaps too ambitious for their own good. The majoring difference between Prior’s film and Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness is Verbinski’s exceptional craft in making even the most outlandish parts of that film feel cohesive. Although Prior can pull off a number of strong sequences, he doesn’t have the script capable enough to reign it all in.
Prior is also attempting to make a character study out of Dale’s James Lasombra. This is a strong character filled with sorrow and is driven by the task of doing something right, but just as Prior reaches his thematic crescendo, the film’s focus on character becomes drastically muddled. The third act takes a sharp turn into crazy-town with the entire rules of the film largely thrown out. Granted, the turn makes for some inspired lunacy, but the film ultimately ends on a thudding “hmm…”. It’s this final act that I’m sure made the studio apprehensive about its release.
The Empty Man has plenty to like and plenty to dislike. David Prior makes the case for himself as a strong visualist in-the-works, even if his writing needs significant retooling. James Badge Dale is given a leading role that offers him a platform to demonstrate his gifted abilities. There is also a handful of effectively chilling sequences, but many feel out of place. This is an atmospheric mystery thriller that doesn’t meet its ambitions, but it gets points for trying.