Views & Reviews From Writer Steve Miller
Formerly Reviews and Stuff at Rotten Tomatoes, 2005 - 2009.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

'The Big Empty' is an apt title

The Big Empty (2003)
Starring: Jon Favreau, Rachael Leigh Cook, Joey Lauren Adams, Daryl Hannah, John Gries, Adam Beach, Bud Cort, Kelsey Grammer, and Sean Bean
Director: Steve Anderson
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A struggling actor (Favreau) is promised money to pay off his overwhelming debts if he go to a small town in the Mojave Desert and wait there with a blue suitcase and bowling ball bag until a man called Cowboy (Bean) comes to claim them. As he waits for his contact, he interacts with the odd inhabitants of a small truck stop... and eventually witnesses what may or may not be alien abductions.

"The Big Empty" is a film full of quirky and interesting characters, portrayed by a cast of talented and charismatic actors. It's got lots of great-looking cinematography that takes full advantage of the locations, perfect pacing, and a minimalist score that comes and goes at the absolute right moments.

Among the actors of particular note are Jon Favreau, as the Everyman drawn into a bizarre situation involving murders and space aliens; Daryl Hannah, John Gries, and Adam Beach are funny and at times more than a little sinister as the small-town folk who may have spent a little too much time in the desert sun; Rachael Leigh Cook is perfect as a teenager who may not just seem like she's some sort of alien but who actually might be one; and Kelsey Grammer and Sean Bean cut mysterious figures who may or may not be involved with aliens visiting Earth, if not actual aliens themselves. The interaction between all these characters is fun to watch, the dialogue is sharp and well-crafted, and you will become drawn into the mysterious swirling through the plot: Just what is in the blue suitcase and what exactly has our hero gotten himself involved in?

Unfortunately, for all the great characters, great writing, and great technical achievement that leads up to the climax of the film, writer/director Steve Anderson chooses to provide absolutely no hints whatsoever as to the ultimate point of the story. We are given some clues--the duster-wearing weirdo character played by Sean Bean identifies himself as someone who helps people "move on," the suitcases [because as the film heads to its climax, one suitcase multiplies into a dozen of them] contain "whatever you need"--the number 11 appears over and over--but Anderson chooses to not provide anything substantial to link these elements, and in the end viewers are left more annoyed than intrigued by the film's ending. As the end credits start to roll, the entire movie takes on a feeling so hollow that one wonders whether the title refers to the desert, the frustration of the main character's drab life, or the box holding Anderson's ideas for what his story meant.

And that's a shame, because the sequence in the desert that makes up the movie's climax is one of the weirdest and most fascinating bits of "aliens walk among us" bit of story telling I've ever seen on screen. However, Anderson's unwillingness to provide any sort of real conclusion ends up undermining everything he's created.

In fact, in some ways, the bonus features on the DVD are almost more interesting than the film itself. Anderson's alternative audio track film commentary is fascinating and interesting, both on the film and on the cut scenes among the bonus features. Particularly interesting are the cut scenes that would have made the desert climax less mysterious (so cutting them was the right thing do do), as well as an alternate ending that would have gone a long way to restoring the magic of that desert scene to the film's final moments (and which might even have made the lack of solid meaning more acceptable because it's so abstract. If you have any fascination whatsoever with the process of filmmaking--be it the creative, technical, or business part--this DVD is one that you want to check out, no matter how flawed the main attraction is.

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