Today I actually tried to write a movie review again and the following text came out of it.
The Empty Man
The Empty Man, USA/ZA/UK 2020, 137 Min.
Since the death of his wife and daughter in a tragic traffic accident, grief-stricken James Lasombra has been unable to pursue his job as a detective. It is this loss that leads him to investigate the disappearance of a neighbor’s daughter, whose mirror bears the words "The Empty Man made me do it" written in blood is emblazoned, the local police nevertheless rather believes in a prank and a juvenile runaway. James investigates on his own and soon comes across serious clues, especially concerning the urban legend of the Empty Man. If you call him by blowing into an empty bottle on a bridge and thinking of him, you will hear him the next day and see him the day after. On the third day, however, you will meet him and die..
Praised to the skies in some places, scorned and frowned upon elsewhere, The Empty Man was quickly a must-see for me, after the overlong horror film recently hit Disney+ of all places. It dares a lot with its proud running time of almost 140 minutes, but films like Suspiria or Midsommar (both of which are even longer) show that this can work in the horror subject, if you want to stage and tell more than a handful of jumpscares and / or whimsical chase scenes. So for me this story is also more mystery drama with oppressive atmosphere than horror film in the real sense, because as successful as the whole thing may be staged, I can not really claim to have really creeped me out, if you leave aside a few, really only isolated moments. But that doesn’t mean that the film is automatically a failure, because the opposite is the case and David Prior does a lot right in his feature film debut as director and writer, even if you have to be able to live with the fact that the plot seems increasingly contrived by its very nature.
In fact, I have read elsewhere that the less you know in advance, the better the film works, and I can agree with that without reservation, because only then the intended fascination and pull unfolds, which steers the plot several times in unexpected and thus all the more oppressive directions. One can certainly be divided about the final twist and a few dramaturgical decisions, but The Empty Man is able to successfully surprise and disturb again and again, whereby the few jumpscares have been staged more than effectively and are perhaps just right, because they are not overused and tried too hard. Exciting is also the structure of what is shown, because basically you could say, is the actual story quasi a short film before, which serves on the one hand to show the "Empty Man" as a spooky figure, on the other hand, of course, will have its relevance later on.
I was especially happy for and about James Badge Dale, who I usually know from the second to third row of films like Stretch or Iron Man 3, because he is allowed to shoulder The Empty Man most of the time single-handedly and does it extraordinarily convincingly. When one hears or reads that he is impersonating an ex-detective, one might roll one’s eyes at the cliches that are served, but in fact this James Lasombra acts in a pleasantly human and comprehensible way and is by no means as hardened as might be feared at times. In general, the character is provided with some interesting key data and also mannerisms that are likely to catch the eye and irritate some people, but of course this is all part of a very carefully conceived screenplay, for which it is by no means enough to walk along well-trodden paths.
This will please many and alienate others, because you either accept and enjoy the eventual premise into which Prior has allowed his two-hour narrative to flow, or you feel cheated out of your time, because the path taken is already quite radical and idiosyncratic in nature. But also here every detail would be too much of a good thing and it should only be noted that I for my part had fun reading some interpretations and interpretations of The Empty Man afterwards, because besides the superficial horror (which in my eyes as mentioned goes much more in the direction of mystery), there exists a downright philosophical meta-level, which picks up all kinds of exciting concepts to give the basically very straight staged plot a few kinks. Due to the conceptual idiosyncrasy and the only conditionally conveyed horror, I see here by no means a cult film in the starting blocks, but still a very worth seeing and successful work that both demands and rewards the attention of the viewers.
With The Empty Man, David Prior presents a scary flick that is equal parts opinionated and old-fashioned, and while it doesn’t rely so much on genuine shock effects as it does on enigmatic and unexciting mystery horror, it’s especially atmospheric that convinces to the last. Many of the narrative and dramaturgical swings may ultimately be a matter of taste, but Prior remains true to its own standards to the end.