- January 22, 2021
VOD, rated R, 137 minutes
It says a lot about how "The Empty Man" was released that I, an absolute freak who spends more time reading about Da Movies than anyone should, did not know it existed until like a month ago. And I only discovered it existed when one of my Letterboxd follows reviewed it by essentially saying, "Why are people trashing this? It's good." Of course I immediately went to read more reviews, and the vast majority were average to poor. I think it had a 2.6 out of 5 star rating on the site back then — and anything below a 3 is generally a big red flag. It seemed like this thing was unceremoniously dumped by 20th Century Studios for a reason.
But I was intrigued. It was a movie from a first-time director (but a longtime Hollywood guy) in David Prior. It stars James Badge Dale, a classic Underrated Guy who always does strong work even when the projects he's in either suck or are good but no one watches them. (I will never forget you, "Rubicon.") And the film's elevator pitch — a small-town cop investigates the disappearance of a teen who had come to to worship the titular figure, who is something of an urban legend — was pulpy enough to entice. I put the film on my watch list, figuring it would be a fun-but-dumb slasher to watch at 1 a.m. sometime.
Then something weird happened: A lot more critics I like also started hyping up "The Empty Man." And not in a "fun-but-dumb" way. Like, in a "Why aren't all of you watching this right the hell now?" way. So I watched it right the hell then.
Folks, "The Empty Man" rocks.
It's not at all what I expected. In fact, it's not a slasher at all. It's a slow burn of a horror movie where the scares don't so much jump at you, usually, as they do slither up your spine. It's not formulaic, and it's not haphazardly thrown together to make a quick buck. Prior obviously cares about the story he is telling, even starting the movie with a 20-minute sequence set in Bhutan that essentially function as its own short film. And even though technically the film's elevator pitch is accurate, it's not close to all-encompassing. Throughout the film's 137-minute runtime(!), "The Empty Man" touches on a lot of ideas, including the dangers of all-encompassing apathy and how easy it is to be manipulated by others if you're not confident in yourself and your beliefs. It is also about the bridges, both literal and metaphorical, that we encounter in our lives.
It is a lot, OK? I haven't even mentioned that Stephen Root shows up for one scene to spout some philosophical nonsense (or is it?) that only he could sell. I haven't mentioned the film has one of the best uses of fog/the color white that I've seen. I haven't mentioned that it is jam-packed with Easter eggs and meta details; those who like to go on Wikipedia and Reddit deep dives will be left salivating.
The film dips into a few different subgenres, but some of the fun of watching "The Empty Man" for the first time is discovering those genres on your own, so I won't go into those much. But even if I wanted to run the film's third act, I don't think I could; so much happens that I only understand 80% of it at most, and that's after having thought about it for weeks now. I can tell you this, though: The last hour of this film is the most a movie has scared me since "Hereditary" in 2018.
The cult of "The Empty Man" is now growing strong; the film his risen over that dreaded 3.0 mark on Letterboxd (3.2 to be exact! Should be way higher!) and I expect more people will get on board as word of mouth continues to be positive. Don't you want to be an early adopter? Don't you want to be cool? Don't you? Watch this movie then!
HBO Max, rated PG-13, 112 minutes
Continuing today's theme of "2020 movies that got poor reviews but actually rule," we have "Wendy," a modern-ish retelling of the Peter Pan myth from Wendy Darling's point of view.
Unlike "The Empty Man," I did know about "Wendy" before it was released, but I ignored it because I don't love the Peter Pan story in general, and the reviews of this version didn't sound like it was different enough to sway my feelings. But I knew it was the second film from Benh Zeitlin, and I liked his first film, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a lot. I also knew he continued his idea of using non-actor children here, casting a wildly diverse set of characters, including Yashua Mack as Peter Pan. Mack is a Rastafarian native of Antigua, where part of the movie is shot. The rest was filmed in remote sections of Montserrat. That was intriguing, if nothing else.
Once Sean Baker, the director of "The Florida Project," said "Wendy" was one of his favorite films of the year, I knew I had to see it. I didn't regret it.
I would have watched it sooner if I had known how loose the adaptation was going to be. No one's referred to by last names, and no one has any flying powers. When Wendy (a very talented newcomer named Devin France) and her two brothers run away with Peter, it's via a midnight train — then a boat ride to a mysterious island where no one seems to age. Unless, of course, someone suffers a loss. Then the aging comes quick, and you're exiled from the main group, out of fear of the disease spreading to the still-youthful.
Once one of Wendy's brothers begins to age, the group tries to figure out a way to reverse the process. I don't think it is a spoiler to say this drives basically the only plot developments of the movie. The rest is pure vibes: gorgeous cinematography highlighting the Montserrat coast as well as rural America and, most importantly, conversations about how growing up is an adventure of its own.
A lesser Peter Pan movie would take the opposite route, having Wendy stay on the island forever as a child. Thankfully, that's not what happens here. You won't find ending spoilers here, but I'll say that I found it unexpected and emotionally satisfying. The film has a clear message and it's one illustrated beautifully.
But again, the main draw is the visuals. Zeitlin and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen have created an indescribably lush world full of wonder, joy and even terror, in a few scenes. Every shot has a purpose, like the rickety handheld cameras showing off the midnight train's power and speed or the way the screen seems to create a haze of color when the audience first meets Mother, a saintly sea creature who watches over the inhabitants of the island.
Watching the film's trailer might convince you more than anything I can say with words. "Wendy" stirred my emotions through its sheer totality. That's one of the biggest compliments I can give. It'll also make you want to call your family — Hi, Mom and Dad — if you haven't done that in a while. It's heartfelt in all the right ways, and it deserves to be seen, to be taken in and to be lived.