Think of a hybrid between Repo Man, The Big Lebowski, and Twin Peaks, and you'll wind up with something bearing a striking resemblance to The Big Empty, the feature film debut of writer/director Steve Anderson. It's a dark comedy with a sci-fi bent and a skewed sense of humor, the type of movie that doesn't fit comfortably lumped under any of the labels propped on the top of the shelves at the local Blockbuster. Seemingly owing its inspiration to at least a half-dozen different cult movies, maybe The Big Empty will attract an equally rabid following after it's had a chance to stretch its legs on home video.
The Big Empty stars Jon Favreau (Swingers)
as John Person, a dumpy aspiring actor who intensely pores through his headshots in a barren L.A. apartment. He's convinced that his latest audition will offer the breakthrough he's been waiting for, since his three-episode stint on a shortlived sitcom and a handful of commercials aren't paying the bills. As he constantly ducks the landlord and makes cute with his neighbor Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), John sits atop a seemingly insurmountable mountain of debt. His oddball neighbor Neely (Bud Cort) offers him a way out. Neely and his unnamed associates have been keeping a close eye on John, to the point of knowing precisely what pages of magazine catalogs he jerks off to and analyzing the resulting sockful of sperm. For the tidy sum of $27,000 and change, all John has to do is drop a shiny blue suitcase off at the truckstop town of Baker, California. He barely misses his contact in Baker, an apparent serial killer known only as The Cowboy (Sean Bean). John spends the next few days there waiting for him to return, holed up in a dingy motel with a laughably inept Hawaiian theme and a creepy guy working the front desk who has a total disregard for privacy (Jon Gries). As John passes the time, he encounters some of the colorful locals -- bartender Stella (Daryl Hannah), her scarcely-underage boozehound daughter Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook), abusive, bloodthirsty boyfriend Randy (Adam Beach), and helpfully-labeled dimwit Dan (Brent Briscoe). The one connective thread between them is a mild obsession with flying saucers and alien abductions. Already fearing for his life, John's problems grow further when Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammer) from the FBI tracks him down regarding a decapitation and a series of dozens of unexplained disappearances. When John finally does meet up with the Cowboy, things take an even darker and unexpected turn.
The Big Empty is destined to polarize viewers. Skimming through comments from other reviewers and assorted folks who have seen the film, it's a love-it-or-hate-it affair, not the type of movie that engenders indifference. That is, except for me; although I can't say The Big Empty is really my bag, the movie offers enough to appreciate on some level even if I didn't find it all that entertaining. One complaint I've seen rattled off frequently is that the events of The Big Empty make little sense. That's true, but that's also rather the point. The Big Empty revels in its ambiguity and oddity, and viewers who are puzzled by the works of David Lynch or Gregg Araki probably shouldn't bother. Araki is probably a better point of comparison, since I had a similar response to The Big Empty as I did to The Doom Generation. The humor doesn't come in the form of punchlines, sight gags, pratfalls, elaborate setups, or witty exchanges, but in its pervasive quirkiness. It's an approach that's certain to be hit or miss in any movie, and in the case of The Big Empty, it struck out for me more often than not. The surreality isn't over-the-top enough to get a laugh, restrained enough to be accessible even though the material cries out for it to be cranked up to 11. Clever dialogue would've been a welcome bonus too. I get the impression that writer/director Steve Anderson had a clear idea in his head as to how the story would be presented visually and what his characters needed to do throughout the film (at least up until its final moments, arguably), but not so much what they needed to say. He certainly has a firm grasp on set design and camera placement, though. Anderson is no stranger to standing behind the camera, having won a Peabody Award and boasting a background in documentary filmmaking, although The Big Empty marked his first time directing fiction of any length. He has an impressive visual eye, and even though reviews of the content of The Big Empty are going to be scattershot, I don't think there's any denying that it's a nicely shot film.
Regardless of my thoughts on the story, the script managed to attract a pretty impressive array of talent, beginning with lead Favreau. Following 29 Palms and Scorched, Rachael Leigh Cook chimes in with her third DVD appearance in the past year in which a character in a small, strange desert town goes to great lengths to acquire a sizeable stack of money. Also present are Internet fave Sean Bean, Bud Cort (Harold and Maude), Joey Lauren Adams, and an almost unrecognizable Darryl Hannah, who looks a good decade younger than usual. Adam Beach fumbles through his jealous boyfriend role, and although it's always welcome to hear a network television star like Kelsey Grammer spout off a string of profanity, he wasn't entirely convincing to me as an FBI agent.
I wasn't enthralled by the characters or the story of The Big Empty. It seemed content to be bizarre strictly for the sake of being bizarre, and as many genres as it leaps to throughout its 92 minutes, I don't think it ever really effectively hit any of those notes. Although I bet I have many of the movies that inspired Steve Anderson resting comfortably on my DVD shelf, I just couldn't connect with his film. Again, The Big Empty is the type of movie that's going to divide viewers, and apparently I'm not falling squarely into the "love it" column. Readers who find my description of the movie compelling are encouraged to check it out, though, if only as a rental. Artisan-slash-Lion's Gate have assembled a nice DVD release for the film, including six channel audio, anamorphic widescreen video, and a healthy assortment of extras.
Video: The Big Empty is a great looking movie with a decent looking DVD, presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. There are no print flaws to be found, though some mild film grain creeps in at times. Anderson paid special attention to color while filming, and his intentions appear to be accurately represented here, particularly those unearthly shades of blue. The movie and all of its supplements have been crammed onto a single layer, and although the image is fairly sharp and detailed, it would've benefitted considerably from having more room for the bitrate to breathe. Viewers with larger displays are going to be disappointed with the aftereffects of this level of compression.
Audio: The default soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps. Although the movie can't be pinned down into any one genre, the audio can, sounding much like a standard issue comedy track. The bulk of the action is up front with dialogue rooted in the center, and light ambiance and the score are reinforced in the rears. The music throughout sounds rich and full, making effective use of all of the speakers and the subwoofer. Activity is generally light in the lower frequencies, but roaring engines and some of the effects that occur as the climax approaches give the sub a decent workout. It's a pretty standard mix, but it accomplishes everything it needs to without any problems or concerns. Other audio options include a stereo track (192Kbps), Spanish subtitles, and closed captions.
Supplements: The first of the extras, an audio commentary with Steve Anderson, is listed in the "Setup" menu rather than "Special Features". Rather than merely chat about whatever's splashed on the screen at the moment, Anderson takes the opportunity to provide a sense of what it's like to shoot an independent film. Like the original Cube DVD, it almost serves as a condensed film school as he makes suggestions to aspiring filmmakers for preparation, bringing a project to fruition, financing, dealing with the politics of filmmaking, dealing with the pressures of time, and coaxing the best performances from the cast. Anderson also talks about the movie's origins as a microbudget flick he thought he could shoot and fund himself with some friends and how that shaped the finished product, as well as how covering Heaven's Gate for CNN influenced part of the movie.. The emphasis is on production, not the story, and viewers shouldn't go in expecting Anderson to explain every facet of what's shown on-screen.
"Making of The Big Empty" is a fifteen minute look into the production of the film, bouncing between brief clips from the movie, some behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with much of the talent involved. Steve Anderson, producer Gregg L. Daniel, and actors Jon Favreau, Joey Lauren Adams, Kelsey Grammer, Sean Bean, Daryl Hannah, and Bud Cort all chime in with a few comments. They discuss the genesis of the project, what attracted them to their roles, their characters, shooting in a soundstage-less tiny town prone to extreme temperatures, and even a bit about their thoughts on alien abductions.
"The Big Empty Picture Show" is a montage of production stills and on-set photos, running just under five minutes total. The large assortment of pictures can be viewed either with "All I Know" by Dead Rock West playing underneath or with running commentary by Anderson. His comments primarly focus on the sense of camaraderie on the set and how he wanted to convey that on this DVD, as well as giving credit to a generally underappreciated crew.
The supplemental footage is divided into two chunks -- "Deleted Scenes" and "Alternate & Extended Scenes". First up are nine deleted scenes that run just over 15 minutes in total. There are a couple of characters in here who don't appear in the movie at all, including one three and a half minute scene with Danny Trejo. Truckstop hooker Candy, the Cowboy, and Ruthie also get a lot more screentime. Anderson notes that these scenes were mostly trimmed for time, because they didn't make sense with other scenes excised, or because at the end of the day there were inessential. There are also ten minutes worth of extended scenes -- two alternate scenes, an extended speech, an alternate ending. Again, Anderson offers optional commentary. The alterations made in the final cut are all understandable, particularly the brief change in the ending.
A gag reel collects a little over four minutes of the cast flubbing lines and bursting out into laughter. Some costume concepts, with sketches of each of the characters and very detailed descriptions of their clothing, are also provided. This section delves further into associating numbers and archetypes with characters, something that I didn't get while watching the movie. Finally, the trailer gallery includes promos for The Punisher, Dummy, Quicksand, The Big Empty, Step Into Liquid, and Made. All of the trailers are letterboxed, though not enhanced for widescreen displays, and feature stereo audio.
The DVD sports a set of attractive 4x3 animated menus, and an insert listing its 22 chapter stops is tucked into the keepcase.
Conclusion: The Big Empty isn't going to appeal to the typical mainstream audience, and even viewers with a taste for these sorts of quirky, genre-defying independent films are likely to be polarized. It's not a movie I'd recommend forking over twenty bucks for on a blind purchase, but intrigued readers may want to opt for a rental, and there are enough quality extras on this DVD to fill an evening or two. Rent It.
Related Links: The official site for The Big Empty offers a trailer for anyone wanting to catch a peek at the movie, along with the standard plot summary, pictures, and production notes.