They tell me you love the movie Southland Tales. You do? I was in the thing, I’m on the set and I said to the director Richard Kelly, can I ask you a question? I read the script, I have just one question. “What do I say when people ask me, ‘what’s this movie about?’, because I can’t figure it out for the life of me.” And he said, “just say it’s about the end of the world.” And he also said to me, “I just made the movie like it was going to be the last movie I could ever make, so I just stuck everything in it.” That he did!
– Jon Lovitz, via the Cameo app
When was the last time a new movie came to you completely out of nowhere? No advertising, no awards campaign, no movie stars, no trailer, no plot synopsis, no pre-existing intellectual property, no “discourse”? These days, most movies that have the potential for a niche audience to embrace them come prepackaged that way. Take a movie like Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor; after screening at festivals, it finally landed on streaming services as Possessor Uncut, even though it was the only cut anyone could actually see. The new title promises grindhouse thrills, of the sort favored by its presumed ideal viewers. The marketing and distribution of the movie baked its audience right into the new title.
As Martin Scorsese has pointed out, “content” is the game now. All visual media exists in a precisely quantized market realm and will be produced accordingly.
It turns out, though, that thanks to the very same conglomerate-choked mediascape that homogenizes film culture into a kind of grey slush, once in a while, you can still produce a genuine, “organic” cult film. The movie just needs to be completely abandoned first.
The Empty Man. Not much of a title. Not much of a release, either, even for the COVID era; screened for a small number of critics and presumably about five in-person filmgoers, followed by a digital release (for paid rental only – no Netflix, no Prime, no Hulu, no nada) in January. Very few ads, which ran for only a week or two. Even for the traditional seasonal content dreg treatment, that’s a deep hole to stuff your movie in.
I would have most likely never heard of the movie, or would have thoughtlessly assumed it was worthless, until it came up on my radar via Letterboxd, the “light” social media network and logging site. Here was a new horror movie that had escaped my attention completely, and multiple users I trust were raving about it? Despite having an overall user score of, at the time of this writing, 2.9 out of 5? (It was at 2.8 when I started – it’s moving on up!) I couldn’t remember the last time learned about a movie via word of mouth. It was just there all of a sudden, and since I first watched it, it’s stayed with me.
Everything I know for certain about The Empty Man is either from watching the movie (which I have now done more often than I care to admit), reading the 2014 comic on which it is (loosely) based, or from its Wikipedia and iMDb entries. The rest is pure inference and opinion. The film’s director/writer/co-editor David Prior has not, as far as I can tell, given a single interview about it to anyone. I’ve looked. I have no idea if this is because the movie had no promo budget, or if it’s because Prior simply hasn’t been asked. (If you’re reading this, buddy, email me, would you?)
Disney didn’t even bother to remove the 20th Century Fox logos from the credits or the trailer. The Empty Man comes to you from a dead brand.
Here is a partial list of the movies and other media that I thought of, or were referenced by my viewing partners, when thinking or talking about The Empty Man: Pontypool; The Matrix (as well as the recent documentary A Glitch in the Matrix); Candyman; It Follows; Richard Kelly’s The Box and Donnie Darko; the sublimely creepy podcast series I Am In Eskew; r/creepypasta; Color Out of Space, Twin Peaks: The Return (whose viewers may yelp with recognition at the appearance of a very specific term); the thrillers of David Fincher.
If the above paragraphs intrigue you, go rent The Empty Man and go in as cold as you can. Do not watch the trailer, which is both amateurish and misleading. I can’t promise you you’re going to like it – the movie has pretty fiercely divided the people I’ve screened it for (safely, over the internet) – but I can promise you will be completely baffled at least once, and isn’t that fun?
Investigating The Empty Man
Based on its filming dates (in 2017), we can reasonably assume that Disney received ownership of the film when it absorbed Fox, and decided that it had absolutely no interest in actually releasing the thing, and sat on it for two years. You don’t even need to see the movie to understand why they’d have balked at bothering to market it. For starters, The Empty Man is a one hundred and thirty-seven minute horror film. Its leading man, James Badge Dale, is a mighty fine character actor, but not exactly a typical contemporary horror lead. (Think about the last five new horror movies you watched and I’ll bet at least four of them have young women in the lead roles.)
What really makes The Empty Man a tough sell, though, is what the movie isn’t. The comic, from prolific comics writer Cullen Bunn and with gruesome, vivid art by Vanesa R. Del Rey, is practically a storyboard for a balls-to-the-wall horrorfest, filled with impalings, gougings, and flesh rended in every direction. One can easily imagine a Fox development minion salivating at the idea of spawning a Walking Dead-style phenomenon out of this simple, creepy concept.
That might have worked, but The Empty Man is not that movie. By modern horror standards, it’s practically PG-13, and very much unlike The Walking Dead, it shares no characters and only a handful of concepts and images with its inspiration.
Prior’s main source of credits: helming behind-the-scenes documentaries, of the sort you typically find in DVD extras. Many of these were for David Fincher movies, including Fight Club, Zodiac and Panic Room. Aside from that, a 40-minute 2008 short film called AM1200. On the still-live AM1200 website, promises of a feature-length adaptation that never materialized. (It’s available to watch in full for free on YouTube.)
Fincher is a notoriously demanding, perfectionist filmmaker, one who exerts a fine degree of control over all of his features, for better or worse. I suspect one or both of the following statements is true: working under Fincher encouraged Prior to only make a movie only on terms he found agreeable (i.e. had final cut or something close to it; it’s unlikely that Fox or Disney wouldn’t have trimmed the length significantly if they had the option), or Fincher put in a good word for Prior himself.
However it happened (or more accurately, was allowed to happen), The Empty Man is coming to us at a creepily appropriate time, and in creepily appropriate ways.
The Empty Man is a Frankensteined hybrid of multiple popular strains of genre filmmaking that are in vogue at the moment: A24-style “gentrified horror” (languid pacing, emphasis on mood and symbolism over jump scares, wild final-act gambits); Lovecraftian cosmic terror with creepy crawlies from hell dimensions (think Mandy or Color Out of Space); the “Empty Man” mythology brings to mind creepypasta-influenced horror flicks like The Bye Bye Man or Slender Man (this is, in fact, the exact movie promised by The Empty Man’s slapdash trailer); lastly, and most persuasively, The Empty Man is also the latest take on simulation theory, the notion that we live in a simulated reality, while real reality beckons. In fact, two other movies released very close to this one, Rodney Ascher’s documentary A Glitch in the Matrix and Mike Cahill’s new film Bliss, are centered on this very topic.
Even beyond that, individual scenes suddenly seem to suggest that the viewer has entered a completely different movie; a stunning sequence involving a blob-like herd of humans and a tower of flame evokes cult-focused cult films Kill List and The Wicker Man; there’s a giallo-style execution in a steam room with near-zero visibility; the movie’s least convincing sequence features an extended “found footage” exhibit that feels like an Eli Roth afterthought.
Almost none of the many, many elements that make up The Empty Man are new. The way they’re all crammed into one movie in service of a pretty compelling central concept is new, and is both the film’s power source and the reason it totally alienated or bored most critics, not to mention the existing audience:
(Is it possible that, just maybe, in the absence of interviews, hype cycles, press releases, and other ephemera to tell you about how and why a movie was produced, most people have no clue how to independently interpret or judge movies?)
I’m going to give Prior the benefit of the doubt here and assume that the things that are odd and special and genuinely unique about this movie are all completely intentional. It seems very unlikely to me that a guy who hung around the set of Zodiac for months would come away from that experience with the idea that the best way to make a movie is simply to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. Yet it’s also true that it feels akin to Lovitz’s quote re: Richard Kelly and Southland Tales: this, too, feels very much like the kind of movie that can only exist when you think this is the last time anyone will ever let you make a movie.
Bridges to nowhere
The Empty Man starts fucking with you pretty much immediately. The movie opens in 1995 in Bhutan, which is a real place. We follow a group of mountain climbers; having seen a horror film before, we sense that things will not go well for these characters, and that things will not go well for them very shortly, most likely in the next three or four minutes.
It turns out that it takes 22 minutes for this to happen.
After that, we skip to 2018, the year the movie was originally intended for release, where James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) is jogging across a bridge. (Bridges are a big deal in this movie.)
The intertitle informs us that we’re now in “Webster Mills, Missouri”, which isn’t a real place. However, a Google search did turn up a business by that name based in Webster, a small town in Prior’s home state of Massachusetts.
James is an ex-cop, a functional alcoholic, and, seemingly, a nice enough guy just trying to mind his own business – literally, as the owner/operator of a small security company. We know that he’s meant to be a nice guy because he tips well. (Incidentally, James Badge Dale is an absolute hoot in this movie, and ironically much more human-feeling and natural in his reactions to the uncanny than most genre-movie protagonists.)
James meets up with a troubled young woman named Amanda (Sasha Frolova). We know she’s meant to be troubled because she has this haircut:
Their dialogue hints ominously at some shared trauma that connects James, Amanda, and her mother Nora (Marin Ireland, whose characters always seem to be having a very bad day; see also Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked). Amanda informs him that she’s found an answer, a solution to her traumas: this reality isn’t reality, she says:
“What’s real starts here (gestures at James’ head), and it ends up out here. What we think about with focus and intention and repetition, we manifest. It’s the power of positive thinking, and the power of negative thinking. Right? But what if there’s a secret truth? What if our thoughts actually begin
somewhere else? And they travel through us like a signal traveling down a wire. Thoughts that are old and hidden and singular.”
This is the first of no fewer than three scenes where a character in The Empty Man essentially pauses the movie to tell you what’s really “happening” in The Empty Man. The first person to do this is Amanda; the second is a cult leader played by the great Stephen Root; the third is an absurd nu-beatnik teenager played by the guy from those Kissing Booth movies (Joel Courtney).
Of course, Amanda disappears, and James sets out to find her, which puts him on a path straight to “The Empty Man”, a creepypasta-like urban legend boogeyman who manifests gradually once the summoner has simply thought about The Empty Man while blowing on the mouth of a bottle. On the first night, this entity appears only auditorily; on the second, he can be seen; on the third, the entity “finds you” and it’s lights out.
The movie reminds you of these rules constantly via repeated Day One/Two/Three intertitles and via dialogue, which doesn’t change the fact that the rules do not matter. They turn out to be completely unrelated to the actual subject matter of the movie, in the same way that the “rules” of The Box are completely incidental, despite also being the principal plot hook. Again, Fox’s marketing department must have loved this.
Moments later, we meet Stephen Root’s cult speaker, who has a message for James, and for us:
“Struggling has failed. Struggling is what wakes you up every day, wondering how much more you can acquire, how much more you can use, how much more space can you take up in the world. When the question we really need to ask ourselves is, how much less can you use? How much less space can you occupy? There is no struggle because there are no distinctions. To say that you are wrong, or I am right, is to divide us.
Therefore we deny there is such a thing as right or wrong. These are exclusionary constructs designed to foster the illusion of separateness. […] This message comes to you directly from the Empty Man.
He beckons you to discover the true face of the world.”
I will remind you that absolutely none of this stuff is in the original comic.
Something starry explodes
To paraphrase Jon Lovitz, how would you explain to someone who asked what “the Empty Man” – the concept, not the movie – is?
In her song “Emily”, Joanna Newsom quickly explains to us three different-but-related terms in two different-but-related ways:
The meteorite is a source of the light
And the meteor’s just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light
And the meteor’s how it’s perceived
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee
Now imagine that there was only one term for the concepts “meteorite,” “meteor” and “meteoroid” represent, and you are a lot closer to understanding how the term “The Empty Man” works in this movie.
In horror movies like The Babadook, It Follows, Candyman, and other “cursed entity” flicks, the boogeyman generally stands in for a specific trauma, social ill, or concept. In general, however, while the metaphor may be plainly evident, the creature/manifestation itself is one degree removed from the thing it’s metaphorizing. Is it one single entity that happens to also represent something, but is generally understood as a discrete phenomenon for the protagonist to vanquish or be vanquished by.
The Empty Man, the in-movie creature/phenomenon, on the other hand, is directly referred to or shown in the movie as being or referring to four different people/things.
- The concept of disconnecting from reality and losing yourself to a single, ancient consciousness: this is explicitly referred to as “The Empty Man” by Stephen Root’s character. The source. The meteorite.
- The boogeyman of legend known as “The Empty Man”, a humanoid seen in a kind of shambolic plague doctor type outfit – but invisible to anyone not “infected”. A representation of the concept just described. What we see, how it’s perceived. The meteor.
- Paul (aka John Doe), the previous host/vessel/”broadcaster”. A meteoroid; an object.
- James, the “tulpa” (a being made flesh by concentrated thought) built specifically to act as the cult’s new vessel. Another meteoroid.
Of course, you need to watch the entire movie to learn all that. Like The Usual Suspects or Haute Tension or The Sixth Sense, The Empty Man culminates in a twist (albeit one that’s much more telegraphed than in those movies) that completely alters what came before: according to Amanda, James is only three days old, having materialized only at the will of the cult. All of his memories are false constructions; all of his pain, and indeed his entire sense of self and purpose, is inextricably connected to things that never actually happened.
Once you know who Keyser Soze is, there’s not much point in revisiting The Usual Suspects; revisiting after that just makes a lot of the characters seem quite dumb, and renders many scenes completely inert. The revelation in The Empty Man, on the other hand, is both the correct one for the story it’s telling, and it’s maddening in productive ways that only really hit you on rewatch. Arguably, you haven’t really seen the movie for what it is until or unless you watch it a second time.
Take for example the conversation between James and Amanda, the one that really sets up what’s happening. Did this scene actually take place, or it did, but Amanda is uttering a carefully prepared script? The Empty Man is constantly presenting us with images and scenes of things that likely did not literally “happen”, in sort of the same way parts of Mulholland Dr. are generally interpreted to be visions or wishes from within the perspective of a particular character, or metaphorical representations of the same. This seems different to me from, say, the Keyzer Soze flashback scenes in The Usual Suspects, which exist purely to mislead you in service of “the twist”.
What The Empty Man is doing, I think, is purposely (and productively!) destabilizing the narrative and our brains’ ability to keep a coherent/cohesive single narrative together. The film opens making a kind of sense, maintains that sense for a while, then abandons it in the final act. And once that abandonment has taken place, there is no returning to the simple narrative you thought you were in for – not even when you return to the film. Like you’ve come down with something you can’t shake.
Indicting the cosmos
“What we offer is as old as time.”
More than any film I’ve seen recently, The Empty Man hides crucial information in shots that last only the briefest period. There’s one quick bit of business in the background of this shot that seems to give much of the thematic game away
When I first spotted this, my first reaction was, well, to Google “jacques derrida high school” in the off-chance that there really is a small-town high school named for the French postmodern philosopher and essayist, anywhere. (Reader, there is not.)
I don’t think David Prior has a specific beef with Derrida, who died in 2004. I think this shot is here to clarify what the central concerns of Prior and this movie actually are.
In her work, Patricia Lockwood talks and writes a lot about the strange sensations associated with being “extremely online”. Here’s how her piece The Communal Mind opens (emphasis mine):
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. […] I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. […] It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself.
Actually, while we’re on the subject of Lockwood and spooky resonances, here’s one more little quote from The Communal Mind:
That the shorthand we developed to describe something could slowly, brightly, wiggle into an example of what it described: brain worms, until the whole phenomenon contracted to a single grey inch. Galaxy brain, until something starry exploded.
And here’s the welcome desk at the Pontifex Institute, complete with images you may recognize from the “galaxy brain” meme.
The Empty Man was likely written before Lockwood even published her first piece, so I strongly doubt there’s any direct influence at work. Instead, I think Prior and Lockwood are coming at the same easily observable social phenomena from (very) different angles.
This sense of being subsumed into a greater force whose influence seems to overtake your own, rendering your thoughts not yours but instead belonging to some larger collective force (or as Amanda tells James: “you’re not your own man; you’re our man”), is described in a very similar way to Lockwood’s descriptions throughout The Empty Man. When James confronts the uppity punk who purposely misled him earlier in the movie, he tells him “you’re coming down with him already,” as through The Empty Man were indeed a kind of fever, a physical ailment, akin to Lockwood’s description. This also lines up neatly with the already-quoted Amanda scene. In The Empty Man, the “condition” in the postmodern condition isn’t something you can recover from, but only give yourself to, lose yourself in service of.
The Derrida namecheck leads me to think Prior is thinking more broadly (perhaps too broadly for his, or the movie’s, own good) about modernity and the forces that can casually erode your will to live and/or think for yourself. It’s notable that the scariest image in The Empty Man is not the Lovecraftian monster that ultimately takes over James’ body and mind, but instead this undifferentiated herd of cultists:
To say, as Root’s character does, that “there is no struggle”, is to accept defeat on the material plane with respect to fighting for a better or more just world, or life.
In the end, more than making any specific argument about postmodernism, critical theory, or any other bete noire I could identify, The Empty Man is really about the true but rarely acknowledged power of collective ideas and thoughts, and how they transform not only our perception of reality, but our perception of each other and our own capacity for growth and change in the material plane. In this sense, the movie it ends up most closely resembling is Pontypool, in which the English language has become irreversibly tainted and has evolved into a brain-destroying disease.
When James finally tracks down the cult he believes may be responsible for the deaths and disappearances, they hand him some forms to fill out. Here’s one of them:
The film returns over and over to the concept that “the brain can itch”. The only cure for this itch, it seems to say, is to give yourself over to the thoughts of the collective, to let go of struggle, to deny the possibility of objective truth or reality. When James brings the case to the cops, they can only shrug. “You can’t indict the cosmos.”
It is notable that the deaths in The Empty Man appear to the outside observer to be suicides: characters are found hanged, or having fallen from a mountain ledge, or punctured with stab wounds not apparently caused by a second party. (Suicide is actually on the decline globally, but since 2000 it’s mostly been on the rise in America.) It’s also worth noting that the acolytes of The Empty Man seem to be largely younger people – in fact, The Empty Man could reasonably be described as a drama about a Gen Xer struggling to understand the world occupied by millennials and zoomers.
And while The Empty Man might be a fantasy, the notion of “unplugging” from reality and embracing some other one is very much a real tendency. From the blackpilled “lie down and rot” incels, to endlessly feuding online leftists, to particularly devoted cosplayers, there is no shortage of disparate microcultures that offer an escape route from the harsh edges of reality, whether that retreat takes the form of a death cult or nazi horse fetishism. Look also to the rising popularity of simulation theory, which seems to accidentally articulate the shock that many feel over their inability to make terms with the actual world they occupy.
This is the state of play I think David Prior is asking us to consider and reckon with in The Empty Man. In a simple exchange between James and Amanda: after she insists to him that nothing is real, he replies plainly: “A lot of things are real.” The Empty Man is ultimately “about” the horrors that can (or could) unfold when a critical mass of people can’t bear to agree with that statement.