The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★★

Lovecraftian Relativism

"The Empty Man" is far more intriguing--ambiguous and complex, witty, and on the surface also a serviceable genre picture--than the other semi-horror movie that conflated post-nihilistic existential dread with contagion that I've seen from the pandemic year of 2020, "She Dies Tomorrow." Both pictures clue the spectator in on what their characters are blathering about by referencing a specific 20th-century French philosopher. In "She Dies Tomorrow," it was absurdist Albert Camus; here, it's deconstructivist Jacques Derrida, whose name is prominently displayed in one shot as also that of a Missouri high school. This philosophical virus, bizarrely enough, spreads out into a relativistic New Age cult (as preached to by Stephen Root, who played a similarly menacing genial role in "Get Out" (2017)), and before that there's a 20-some-minutes tour-de-force of an overture in Buddhist Bhutan.

It doesn't take much paying attention in Philosophy and Religion 101 or a bit of web searching to see a connection between nihilism and relativism and Buddha and Nagarjuna, and the camera here significantly lingers on a group of bhikkhus much in the same way as later on it does with Jacques Derrida High School. In both the Himalayas and the American Heartland, we have characters figuratively and literally crossing bridges in search of truth. (Also, "pont," as in the Pontifex Institute, is Latin for bridge, and "pontifex" refers to Roman priests.) Doing so in Bhutan, a character falls into the abyss, or void--nothingness manifested, the unfathomable primordial chaos, a black canvas, the empty man--and is found in a cave, which again is both literally such and figuratively so--in this case, to get back to Western thought, Plato's Cave, where the Platonic ideal, the underlying truth, takes the form of a tulpa. My favorite visual pun, though, is that what characters are searching for is literally found at the bottom of a bottle, which they blow into to summon the eponymous Empty Man. (Good soundscape overall in this one, too, by the way.)

I also like how smoothly these philosophical endeavors fit within genre conventions. In Bhutan, we get the usual young-adult couples secluded in the wilderness. Cabin in the Mountains instead of the Woods. With the Midwestern teenagers, it's an urban-legend teen-and-boogeyman thriller, which is how the trailer (rather unsuccessfully) sold the movie. Then, there's the noir-style private investigator of an ex-cop getting in over his head. It rains, as it tends to do in noir to purify the hero, and he also receives the genre trope of a figurative wake-up call of the cult's whispered chanting (another character receives this while actually sleeping), plus smoking and drinking. Noir is rather akin to horror in some ways--similar to giallo--both with their mysterious, oppressive fates. First-time feature writer-director (although with experience chronicling and working on others' features, including those of David Fincher) David Prior evidently knowns his genres and subgenres and their clichés, their repetitions--we even get a bit of a slasher here with the only scene of gratuitous nudity; body horror as the infectious philosophizing at one point takes the shape of some black gunk vomited into another's mouth; and there's even a bit of Japanese, "The Ring" franchise style horror with the VHS tape of a film-within-the-film (with a metanarrative script in a folder, to boot) threatening to leap out to kill the characters.

Before escalating into some "Mullholland Dr." (2001) type twists, bringing it all together is the "un-indictable" cosmos of the Lovecraftian fear of the unknown--perhaps the most relativistic subgenre out there. And, the bottles may be the funniest pun here (to me, at least), but the cleverest might be of the other sort of theory of relativity that makes for the illusion of time and the consequent doubles. Apt for a movie that warns of the dangers of what could be its own definition, of transmitted and received communication. A disease carrier and a carrier signal. A pandemic narrative released when the real narrative is a pandemic. That plays with genre deconstruction while its narrative panics over the implications of that of Derrida's poststructuralism. A film about a cult that is (in part credited to Letterboxd) gaining a cult following.

That's my attempt to deconstruct the text, anyways; right or wrong, what's the difference, and isn't that unknowable, or is that even my interpretation and not just one I received. Am I The Empty Man... aren't we all, or did we just discover, conjure, become, or become infected by it....

(Added to my list of pandemic-related titles and list of 2020 best movies.)

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