The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★★

Think Verbinski’s The Ring times In The Mouth of Madness divided by Lovecraft’s mythos, and it’s almost as good as that sounds. It is so unexpected a studio threw money behind one of these horror-of-the-months with real ambition and vision. “Happy birthday, dear customer!” indeed. Begins with no less a bold conflux of texts in its short film prologue. An American hiker in Bhutan recreates Caspar Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” before a Himalayan of madness and no sooner than the image registers it vanishes with him slipping into an abyss that may as well be an altar of Nyarlathotep, the living tomb of a cosmic polydactylous other mad piping and fused sepulchrally in Gigerian repose. This initiates a three day cycle of boogeyman escalation that repeats as a Midwest cult investigation procedural for the course of the narrative. This is to its point, formally and narratively, as a film of repetitions. The destabilizing trace of meaning begins before we are introduced to Jacques Derrida High School (fucking lol). “Nothing is real,” intones the seeker’s ingenue, and thought can take form by hidden channels undergirding the universe; tulpas make a return from their moment in Twin Peaks: The Return. What is a prayer if not a means to manifest thought and a push in on a prayer wheel repeats in its yawning turns and is later a whining clothesline in rotation over an animal sacrifice and again a spinning brochure rack in a New Age mind-power cult’s foyer. The patterns of footfalls and pre-linguistic whispers compose a disquieting chorus. The posters inked black for the gazer’s oblivion and the overwhelming nether space of the protagonist’s lily painting, seen only in passing: veils of darkness with the incarnate faintly beyond. Three times a low sightline from the stairs of a subterranean access way speaks its passage into being. The steel lattices governing a doom laden bridge suggest the infinite regression of a thing by its repetition like a word uttered into senselessness. A mise en abyme of mirrors is deployed before a murder to figure the particular narrative distortion and its means. Over and over fingers knot together and the summoning blows moan over a hollow as apocalyptic teenage ritual. “One cannot indict the cosmos.” Eyes beam out from physical media – a VHS, a yearbook, a journal – to a future reception; the cult claims its solutions to contemporary life are from all time. That adage “the tale is the map that is the territory” becomes a literal image for the reality-shedding descent. All to lead to a monolithic hospital, looming like desolation’s angel atop a storm-umbraged antenna, and somewhere above a windowpane slides open while the floor falls out beneath you. The abyssal altar from the beginning to Badge Dale’s ascendant one, vertiginous, like how the Latin ‘altus’ means both high and deep. And ever deeper is this genuine creeper. A total out of left field surprise. 

The intertextuality extends into extratextual repetition when James Badge Dale reunites with Robert Aramayo from Standoff at Sparrow Creek and again names him a literary figure, “Aren’t you a little young for the Neal Cassady routine?” That’s who Dean Moriarty is based on in Kerouac’s “On The Road.” In Standoff, Dale calls out Aramayo for his ‘Holden Caulfield’ routine.

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