David Prior’s film sets itself apart from the typically rushed Hollywood genre flick by allowing itself a 22-minute prologue that’s remarkably effective (even if it does add to the bloated 137 minutes total). Four friends are hiking in Bhutan in 1995 when one of them hears a sound in the distance that only he can hear. He wanders off, only to fall into a crevice. A friend hurriedly rappels down to find the young man seated and staring at a terrifying skeleton. He gives him one warning that’s not heeded—“If you touch me, you’ll die”—before he goes catatonic. His three buddies take him back to a nearby cabin, and then things get really weird. The prologue to “The Empty Man” is an effective short film on its own, arguably more so than the rest of the film, and it sets the stage nicely in terms of tone even if it’s indulgent for a movie that’s already pretty long.
Cut to the meat of the story in Missouri in 2018. Enter James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), who is celebrating his birthday alone. Flashes of memory and conversation detail the trauma that James now lives with after the loss of his wife and child in a car accident. His only friend seems to be a neighbor named Nora (Marin Ireland), who comes to James when her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. The investigation seems half-hearted because Amanda is over 18 and can do what she wants, but James can tell there’s something more to it, and not just because there’s a message in blood that says “The Empty Man made me do it.”
James finds a friend of Amanda’s named Davara (Samantha Logan), who tells him that their group tried to summon The Empty Man recently. The story goes that if you blow into an empty bottle on an empty bridge, the Empty Man will come to you. The first night, you’ll hear him. The second night, you’ll see him. The third night, you’ll feel him. Of course, the legend of The Empty Man owes a great deal to other stories like Bloody Mary, Candyman, and Slender Man, but Prior’s film quickly moves on from a traditional boogeyman story to become something much stranger as James discovers a cult of people may be involved in all of this (including a leader played by Stephen Root). And then he learns that he really has no idea what’s going on as “The Empty Man” avoids a traditional jump scare structure by getting more and more surreal, eventually tying back into that prologue in an unexpected way, and reaching a crazy conclusion that I’m not sure makes a lick of sense. But give me a movie that goes off the rails more than one that neatly wraps up in a predictable way every time.