Everybody, at some point in their lives, considers the idea that everything is meaningless.
I might be wrong about that, I suppose – perhaps there are a handful of souls out there blessed and/or innocent enough that they drift off to sleep at night untroubled by even the faint shadow of the fear that maybe it’s even worse than having made a fool of yourself at that party, or having been rejected by that beautiful person you loved so, or having no one to call on the blackest night of your life when there is only you and your thoughts and some questionable life choices in substance form, maybe none of this actually matters at all.
But if those folks exist, I don’t think I’ve ever met one.
I can only assume that David Prior’s had such thoughts quite regularly, based on his The Empty Man – a horror movie that I’m led to understand sells a rather different experience in the trailer than the one we actually get.
We open with a surprisingly-lengthy prologue in Bhutan, in which one of a small group of hikers has an encounter in a disturbing cavern that leaves him…injured? Semi-catatonic? Possessed? His friends can’t be sure, but let’s just say that when they all become stranded on the mountain overnight things Do Not Go Well for them. (I do not consider this a spoiler; this is a horror movie prologue, after all, and these are infamous for presenting us with characters who may not be with us all that long.)
From there, though, we transition abruptly to…Missouri (I cannot pretend I was not a little disappointed; how often do I get to see media products of any sort set in Bhutan?) Here the film introduces our true protagonist – James, a Broken Ex-Cop with one of those backstories one seems to require to become a Broken Ex-Cop. (You know the ones; they usually involve one or more dead family members and/or moments of personal weakness that leave our hero with lingering guilt.) We see him hang out briefly with a neighbor’s kid, a relatively ordinary-seeming teen except for the part where she seems very into the idea that perhaps none of our thoughts and ideas are really ours, that they are fed, or perhaps channeled, to us from some other place or being.
And then she disappears, her mother makes a plea for help, and we’re off to the races for a sort of smoky cocktail of urban legendry, oddly pleasant cults and their nihilistic leanings, and of course an exploration of our hero’s personal history and the truth(s) thereof.
It’s one of those movies about which I have some mixed feelings, I think. James Badge Dale as James is great – relatable, surprisingly funny at times. The visuals are well-executed and many scenes feature little easter-egg clues for those who are watching closely. There are several well-executed moments of surreal creepiness. The central conceits about meaninglessness and/or free will are uncommon and it’s interesting to see the way they’re handled here.
On the other hand: This film needs an editor. Or perhaps, as one of the reviews we looked at afterward suggested, it needs to be a TV miniseries instead of a movie. I love a slow burn, but this burn is very slow, more of a smolder much of the time. And yet, somehow, there is also so much going on: now it feels a bit like I Know What You Did Last Summer, now we have a bit that feels almost Midsommar-adjacent except for, well, the darkness of everything…And then there is the ending, which I could easily see inciting some rage in some viewers but does make sense with the other things the story’s trying to do, even if the reveals therein could maybe have done with a little more spacing between them.
The vibe I came away from this with most strongly, though? “Watching a game of Call of Cthulhu at the tabletop, only there’s just one player for some reason.” The way threads are picked up and then put down, the way there’s somehow simultaneously a couple of strong central ideas and kind of a jumble of things all round them, the way our protagonist is so very central to things (even, at one point, apparently encountering an urban legend in a way that would seem to “break the rules”). You can hear in your head the Keeper calling for a Sanity roll every so often.
Or, well, I can, because I am a giant nerd.
Should you watch it, hypothetical reader? Perhaps. Do you like the idea of sitting at the tabletop with a bowl of popcorn and a beverage, watching a player get themselves into all sorts of shit? Does the idea of an attractively-if-slightly-messily-presented meditation on meaninglessness appeal to you? Then go for it.