The Empty Man and everything else we watched this weekend


This weekend Adam Wingard’s smash-hit Godzilla vs. Kong crossed the $70 million line at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing movie of the pandemic era. In other news, Will Smith and Antoine Fuqua announced that they would relocate the shooting location of their upcoming thriller Emancipation from Georgia, citing the state’s controversial new voting legislation which passed earlier this month. To top it off, Nomadland and Minari won big at the 2021 BAFTA awards, with the former earning over four awards including Best Picture and the latter’s star Yuh-Jung Youn winning the award for Best Supporting Actress.

Here at Polygon HQ, we had big weekend ourselves— watching everything from David Prior’s nascent cult cosmic thriller The Empty Man and HBO’s new series The Nevers to Japanese New Wave classics and black comedy-dramas starring Ozark’s Laura Linney and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here are a few of the shows and movies we’re enjoying watching right now, and what you might enjoy watching as well.


The Empty Man

A gigantic malformed skeleton with steepled hands in David Prior’s cosmic thriller The Empty Man Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s extremely rare for any movie to garner a true cult following within a year of its release, at least without having been designed to do just that. But in the case of The Empty Man, it couldn’t have happened to a better movie. Originally filmed in 2017, delayed for years by Fox, the movie was unceremoniously dumped by Disney (having acquired 20th Century Fox in 2017) late last year at the height of the pandemic. Predictably, no one saw it. But after it was released on VOD in early 2021, people started to find it— and more importantly, those who saw it told their friends.

Everything evil and sinister in The Empty Man is passed around in whispers and rumors. The folklore legend of the Empty Man himself, who will kill anyone that summons him; the mysterious and sinister Pontifex Institute promises religious healing to the wayward teens of the movie’s small-town Missouri setting. The unspoken rule of The Empty Man’s world, that the movie’s protagonist, ex-detective James Lasombra (James Badge-Dale), can’t find out anything in without talking to someone who’s already initiated, gives it a perfect and eerie parallel between its plot and the real-life experience of watching the movie.

The Empty Man exists somewhere in the space between detective thriller, folklore mystery, teen slasher, and occult conspiracy, but doesn’t neatly fit into any of those boxes. It’s incredibly tense, occasionally shocking and violent, but mostly it’s filled with the kind of expertly crafted dread and unease that horror fans will recognize from A24’s films like The VVitch and Hereditary, but it’s faster-paced and more frantic than those movies ever get.

The best primer for The Empty Man are the movie’s own first 20-minutes, which serve as an extended prologue. Set far away from Missouri in the mountains of Bhutan, the opening is so well made and haunting that it could have been one of the year’s best horror movies all on its own.

With all that said, The Empty Man is probably best experienced with as few actual spoilers as possible, so I’ll just join the chorus of the movie’s evangelists and tell you to watch it. It’s time to join The Empty Man cult. —Austen Goslin

The Empty Man is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

And everything else we’re watching…


Candyman

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) crawls through the mouth of a mural of Candyman in 1992’s Candyman directed by Bernard Rose Photo: TriStar Pictures

This weekend, my partner and I sat down to watch Candyman, a film we grew up hearing about through hushed whispers on the playground but never actually watched until now. It’s the type of film that I would not have been ready to watch, let alone appreciate as a kid (I was already terrified enough of Child’s Play as it was), but as an adult I was enraptured. The film follows Helen (Virginia Madsen), a semiotics grad student at University of Chicago and her friend Bernadette’s mission to uncover the truth behind the urban legend of the so-called “Candyman,” a murderous apparition born from out of the the darkest chapters of the city’s history. Things quickly take a turn when the pair visit the Cabrini-Green projects, the modern-day site of Candyman’s horrific origins, only to inadvertently conjure him back into existence.

The film is exquisitely well shot. Anthony B. Richmond’s (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth) cinematography, particularly his overhead shots of the city’s outlying neighborhoods and the University of Chicago campus, thoroughly immerses the audience in the time and setting of Candyman’s universe, and Phillip Glass’ exhilarating score is up there with Koyaanisqatsi. But what really sticks out to me about the film is its themes of social inequality and race relations, of how racism can be writ so deep into the history of a place that it morphs the very terrain of a city; and of how the past is never truly dead so long as someone lives to remember it— and even then, it retains the power to become something just as unspeakable as the truth. We excitedly watched the first trailer for Nia DaCosta’s upcoming sequel-reboot starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen) as soon as we were finished, then immediately watched the animated teaser released by the director in the wake of the film’s delay last year due to COVID-19. Consider us hooked. —Toussaint Egan

Candyman is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

The Nevers

Rochelle Neil manifests a wheel of fire in a dark room in The Nevers Photo: HBO

With all the growing accusations of professional abuse and general grossness swirling around Joss Whedon these days, I was very curious to check in on his latest project to see if it was likely to rally his fandom, or put some positive press out there to counteract all the negative press. Frankly, it doesn’t seem that likely. To my mind, the show doesn’t really get going until episode 3 (I have screeners, I’m a few weeks ahead of the release schedule), and I’m wondering how many people will get that far. The pilot, which premiered this weekend, has some flaws that may keep people from coming back. Its plot, about Victorian women (or at least mostly women) gaining random abilities or abnormalities from a bizarre event, makes it feel like Costume Drama X-Men. But at least the X-Men sometimes get to fight something other than other mutants. The first few episodes of The Nevers make it seem like they’re just going to be fighting each other, which makes the overplot of “Are people with powers a menace to society?” feel a little thin. For normal people, of course having some powered heroes running around to counteract the powered murderers isn’t much compensation.

The pilot episode does have its perks — I was really surprised to see the event that created the powered people, or “Touched,” depicted clearly in the episode, in a way that raises a ton of new questions but is still satisfying and surprising in a “watch the whole season to get any answers” era. (It’s also a strikingly beautiful, melancholy scene.) And I enjoyed the primary heroes, both their dynamic with each other and their inevitable Whedon-y hangups and flaws. The big downer, though, is that the seeming Big Bad of the season … is Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not literally, in that she has a different name and her own powers, but in all other respects a mentally ill woman who talks in long, dreary, symbolic rambles, behaves like a playful child one moment and a psychopathic killer the next, and is playing the “cutesy-poo kitten with dangerous claws” role all over again. It isn’t just familiar, it wasn’t fun the first time. Also, I just can’t get used to HBO’s obligatory random naked boobs in a Whedon show. —Tasha Robinson

The Nevers is playing on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.

The Savages

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages (2007) Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Ten years after her debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, writer-director Tamara Jenkins returned with this 2007 dramedy about elder care and the existential plight of growing up. With the constant barrage of high-concept movies and TV shows hitting streaming each week, it was an absolute delight to watch a film about two people dealing with real-life shit. Jenkins spent those 10 years honing a script full of piercing, memoir-like observation.

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as sister and brother duo Wendy, a wannabe playwright floating through temp jobs and an affair with an older married putz, and Jon, a college professor who can’t summon the effort to finish a book on Bertolt Brecht or save a seven-year relationship running into green-card issues. Distant and squirming through their early 40s, the siblings’ lives converge when their estranged father is diagnosed with dementia. The plan is to fly him from Arizona to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home. But by considering their father’s care for the first time, Wendy and Jon find themselves untangling broken relationships and their own misunderstanding of responsibility.

Jenkins is a master of conveying history with minimal exposition. Entrusting her characters with two of the great actors of a generation, she navigates through the story with tender direction and set design that speaks volumes. You know exactly who Jon and Wendy are from their messy homes and medication habits. And Jenkins doesn’t lose sight of the characters in their orbit — their father, the caretakers, and the people who brush against the story for even just a scene or two live their own lives in parallel to the filmed story. The Savages is a rich human experience, and rare to see with this much dramatic polish. —Matt Patches

The Savages is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

Woman in the Dunes

Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) stares at a naked woman off-screen in Woman in the Dunes Photo: Toho Company

Early in the pandemic, I consumed every piece of fiction I could find about isolation. I watched the original Alien, Black Narcissus, and This Is Not a Film. I listened to lots of Joanna Newsom. And I read The Woman in the Dunes, Kōbō Abe’s terrifying psychosexual novel about a Tokyo schoolteacher who gets abducted by villagers in a remote desert. He’s forced to live with a woman he’s never met at the bottom of an inescapable dune. Things go about as well as you’d assume, which is to say: poorly. It’s one of those books about the repetition, mundanity, and limitations of life that left me feeling nihilistic and optimistic all at once.

While surfing the Criterion Channel, I learned of a film adaptation, also written by Abe almost immediately after the publication of the book. I couldn’t imagine how a director would visualize an allegory that took place inside a house that’s perpetually sinking into sand — especially with the limitations of filmmaking in 1964. I had never seen Japanese New Wave director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s work before.

The film feels like a midnight movie sent from the future. It’s bleak and taboo, the exhausting labor of the couple violently interrupted by close-ups of dead bugs and extreme wide-shots of the endless emptiness of the dunes that trap the couple, they themselves like a pair of ants hopelessly tunneling, going nowhere.

This is why I love Criterion Channel and great curation. I discover films that have for whatever reason alluded me, despite them being revolutionary in their time. Teshigara got nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards! Andrei Tarkovsky named it his 10th favorite film! And now we can watch it whenever we’d like on a streaming service. It’s a hell of a way to pass one’s time while trapped at home. —Chris Plante

Woman in the Dunes is streaming on Criterion Channel.