The Empty Man
Unreliable narration, particularly in film, is often limited to first-person accounts. The narrator—a character within their own story—tells a tale, often utilising a voice over, yet the veracity of what they are sharing is later revealed to be subjective, or even deliberately misleading, such as Henry Hill’s commentary in Goodfellas. On other occasions, the narrator is unaware of their own unreliability, as is the case in Fight Club. To remove the voice over presents a further challenge to filmmakers looking to undermine the credibility of their own story. Either a character can prove to be unreliable, like The Usual Suspects, or a framing device can present a level of subjectivity, such as in Big Fish. To craft a film that presents itself without reliability but not use these methods at all is a challenge which occasionally directors will embrace, but which often fails. Notable successes of unconventional unreliability include Donnie Darko, Possessor, and The Empty Man.
The Empty Man tells the story of an ex-cop investigating the disappearance of a young girl, but it is so much more than that. The narrative begins with an opening setup which initially appears unconnected to the main story, other than to introduce some form of rules to the supernatural threat which permeates the narrative. This section could well work as a standalone short film, and it is incredibly atmospheric and well made. Having a twenty minute prologue is in itself a risky and unusual decision for a director and it is the first of many which are employed in this film.
Two couples are hiking in Bhutan, encountering Buddhist monks and unsafe-looking bridges, until some five miles from a road they experience an accident. One of the group falls down a hole after hearing a strange whistling, and when another comes to rescue him, he is found sat before a giant multi-limbed humanoid skeleton. This is no alien creature, but appears to be the deceased remains of a Hindu god with its many fingers knitted together as it sits waiting for someone to discover it. The fallen hiker is rescued but remains comatose, so the group take shelter in a nearby shack as a storm rolls in. Things become unsettling as the days pass, and the group head towards a final conclusion for their own short story.
It is after this introduction that the plot jumps twenty three years to near present day, and also moves geographically to Missouri in the USA. The central protagonist—an excellent leading turn from James Badge Dale—is a former police detective who now runs a security store, lives alone, and is haunted by a terrible and tragic moment from his past. This may sound a little trite, but it is intentional as nothing in this film is as it seems. The supernatural horror brought into the world in the prologue is then dropped into the story, as a group of teenagers end up getting involved.
The Empty Man borrows several well-known tropes, but it is the presentation and linking of them that is original here. A Candyman-esque game is brought up which, when followed, will summon the titular Empty Man. It is this that the teenagers partake in, and as a result bodies start piling up. That is not the central thrust of the narrative, however, but instead it is a chapter in a twisting tale that continually reinvents itself. The story shifts to a mystery as Dale’s investigations bring him to an institute which seems on the face of it very Scientology-like, but behind the scenes is much more a dark and unsettling cult. The plot corkscrews further, bringing in other ideas which, whilst familiar, are tied together to create something new.
Along with Dale, the cast features strong performances from Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova, and there is a brilliant cameo from Stephen Root as an inspirational speaker. The film is an adaptation of a graphic novel, but appears to deviate from its source somewhat, and is written and directed by David Prior, who has crafted something incredible. There are flaws and issues with the film, and moments which don’t completely work, but overall this is a real surprise and a well-made piece of unusual horror that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Without offering any spoilers, The Empty Man put me in the mind of Kill List and Videodrome. It is unsettling and pivots dramatically, and it presents itself with such unreliability that we follow the protagonist down a rabbit hole without realising. The few things that could be fixed frankly don’t need addressing, as although this is not a perfect film, it is a very good one, and definitely worth seeking out. Prior may not have yet reached the heights of fellow Davids Cronenberg and Lynch, but if he builds upon what he has done here then he may well ascend to those heights in the future. I am very much looking forward to his next few films, and I will be returning to The Empty Man again.