The Ending of 'The Empty Man' Is Meant to Break Your Brain
Director David Prior shines some light on the bleak ending to his cosmic thriller and whether there'll be a sequel.
When you reach the end of The Empty Man, writer and director David Prior's cosmic-horror thriller, you feel hollowed out. The plot, which follows ex-detective James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he investigates the mysterious disappearance of a friend's daughter, grows more complex as it progresses, revealing new elements of James' tragic backstory and the sinister nature of the Pontifex Institute. But the movie also takes on more thematic weight as it unfurls. The ideas, metaphors, and possible interpretations pile up as the mysterious goo starts to fly.
By the time Prior arrives at his unnerving final image and that haunting drone plays again on the soundtrack, it's easy to feel disoriented. How did we get from from a cave in Bhutan to a hospital room where one man lies with a bullet in his head and another stands in front of potential new followers? Do all the script's different narrative threads actually connect? Who is "the empty man" exactly in this scenario?
In speaking with Prior for a separate interview about the film's production and release, I also asked him a handful of questions about the ending of the film. He was happy to talk about specific aspects of the finale, even sharing some ideas for a potential sequel, but he also clearly hopes viewers will dig back into the film and discover new layers as the movie's emerging cult continues to grow. It's ambiguous by design. Despite the struggle to get the movie made and in theaters, the ending was exactly what he wanted to shoot from the beginning. There's no other version out there.
"The overall feeling was always there," he explained. "Finding himself back in the hospital, shooting Paul, recreating the logo of the Pontifex Institute on the back wall, and then turning around and seeing the hospital staff bow down to him was always the ending from the moment I pitched it."
What happens at the end of The Empty Man?
Putting aside all the double-talk of tulpas, bridges, and Jacques Derrida, the ending of The Empty Man is relatively straight-forward—at least as far as solving the central mystery goes. After searching for Amanda (Sasha Frolova), the teenage daughter of his close friend Nora (Marin Ireland), and having a tense run-in with Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root), the chatty leader of the Scientology-esque Pontifex Institute, James, growing increasingly untethered from reality, learns that Pontifex cult members are visiting a hospital to receive messages from a patient. He goes to the hospital and discovers that the patient is none other than Paul, the possessed hiker from the beginning of the film.
Following a loopy conversation with a nurse, James walks into Paul's room and finds Amanda trimming Paul's beard and shaving his face. "Well, you found me," says Amanda, noting that the movie's driving question—"Where is Amanda?"—is now resolved. But there are additional threads to untangle. "I like to think of him as a carrier," Amanda says of Paul. "Because he's like a disease, in a way. But he's also like a carrier signal, you know? Modulated by an input signal. He transmits, we receive. And his message is contagious."
James then calls Nora, Amanda's mother, and she doesn't recognize his voice, telling him he has the wrong number. Amanda explains that Paul is "weakening" and that they need to find a "replacement." Then she says they decided to test out a "radical experiment" and "make one." ("One" presumably meaning a new carrier—or Empty Man!) Amanda claims that they wrote a script and manifested James for their own purposes.
James collapses and his sense of reality starts to collapse, too. From there, the film provides a series of flashback images, a trip down a dark hall, an encounter with a terrifying Lovecraftian monster, and, finally, a showdown with the still hospitalized Paul, which ends with James shooting him in the head, spraying blood on the wall in a way that resembles the logo for the Pontifex Institute. Then, the hospital workers bow before him as a message is whispered on the soundtrack.
Again, this was more or less the ending Prior pitched. "I don't recall a different idea other than going through a kind of psycho-dramatic breakdown where the movie gets even more and more surreal," he said when asked about the ending. "There was always a progression of events where he's walking through one doorway, turns around, and finds himself in a different room. A couple of the details changed. Initially, there was a scene at Nora's house where he goes running back there and then finds himself back in the basement of the Pontifex Institute."
Does John actually become "the empty man" at the end?
The question of how to interpret the ending of The Empty Man is a bit more complicated. If you believe Amanda's claims in the final stretch of the movie, then the Pontifex Institute more or less created James and he was simply following a script all along. There was no free will; everything was pre-destined. Prior pointed to one line of Amanda's dialogue, which she says to James, as a potential linchpin: "You're not your own man, you're our man. And isn't that really what you want in the end anyway? So just let go."
"Whether that means he's become the Empty Man or not, and the extent to which and the reasons he's become the Empty Man are open for, as far as I can tell, three possible interpretations," said Prior. "But maybe more. I didn't want to come down hard on a conclusion because I had threaded within the move enough support for any one of those interpretations that I could foresee. There might be another way to interpret it that I didn't see. I saw three and I tried to lay enough bread crumbs that you could have three people arguing about it and they could have different conclusions and all be able to point to supporting evidence."
What evidence is he referring to exactly? According to Prior, it comes down to how much you believe what Amanda says in the hospital, which is largely open to interpretation, and how it matches with the events depicted in the earlier sections of the film. Even the actors might have different ideas about the reality they were playing. "You tell different actors different things," said Prior. "Sometimes they need different kinds of information in order to think about their character. I was getting ready to say something to James Badge Dale when he preempted me and came up and said something that was exactly it. He played the movie as if everyone else were the tulpas and he was the only real person. I said, 'That's exactly right. That's how you should play it.'"
Could there be a sequel to The Empty Man?
Given the movie's unspectacular showing at the box office and its still slow-building cult appeal, a sequel doesn't seem especially likely. Prior sounded slightly more hopeful about the possibility of getting a physical release on Blu-Ray at some point in the future. "Someday it would be really lovely if this little groundswell of support for the movie manifests enough force to draw the attention of someone willing to release it on physical media," he said. "We see what happens on streaming: Every movie is always at the whim of whatever the mood of the streamer is and things can be taken off or altered or censored or changed. I'm a big advocate for physical media, even if it makes me a bit of a throwback."
Still, he said he did kick around a sequel idea during production. "All I had was the opening," he explained. "I have another 20 or 30 minute opening sequence that takes place in the Arabian Peninsula around 500 AD and again with a cave. It's pretty cool. It's a nice sequence. But as far as what the actual [plot] was, whether we'd continue with Badge or follow someone else... we had talked about various possibilities but nothing really concretized so I couldn't really say exactly."
The idea of sequels made in a similar stylistic register is intriguing. Compared to many other horror films that do inspire sequels, The Empty Man has more to chew on and unpack. Even at its lengthy runtime, the movie leaves you wanting more. Will we ever see Prior's idea for a new prologue? Maybe not in this reality, but there's no telling exactly what the future holds. "Coming up with intriguing openings is relatively easy," Prior observed. "It's threading them towards endings that's tricky."