USA, 2003, 94 min, Color, 35 mm
Jon Favreau, Rachael Leigh Cook, Kelsey Grammer, Joey Lauren Adams,
Adam Beach, Sean Bean, Daryl Hannah, Bud Cort, Gary Farmer
thing can be said for certain about The Big Empty, an offbeat independent
feature that premiered at the AFI FEST 2003 in Hollywood this month:
It's good fun. Among the most popular films at the festival, it
achieved a sold-out house for the event (in one of the ArcLight
complex's largest theaters), which included a Q & A session
with first-time feature filmmaker Steve Anderson. In addition to
directing several plays in New York, director-writer Anderson has
been a cameraman for CNN and other news agencies and has shot seven
documentaries for PBS. He wrote this script after covering the infamous
"Heaven's Gate" case in San Diego.
Big Empty is a darkly comic film that might easily become something
of a cult classic. A loving homage to both film noir and pulp sci-fi,
it has a certain mad but friendly quality -- a cozy, affable core
around which swirl all manner of twisted and tweaked collateral
elements. These form the type of odd amalgam one might achieve after
stirring together pinches of Twin Peaks, It Came From Outer Space,
Roswell, The Big Sleep, Fargo, and Mayberry RFD.
central figure of The Big Empty is a self-absorbed but likable out-of-work
actor played by Jon Favreau (who executive-produced the film and
also directed the recent comedy release Elf). Working as a delivery
man and hoping for a Hollywood miracle, John Person is alternately
insecure and self-contained and unflappable ... as only a marginally
employed thespian could be. Seemingly rootless in Los Angeles, John
is one of the thousands of geographic transplants holding down minimum-wage
jobs while praying for the breaks that will finally establish their
nearly nonexistent acting careers. His one true friend appears to
be Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), the lovely young woman from across
the hall in his apartment building who obviously cares deeply about
him -- a fact to which he seems nearly oblivious.
has been fretting about his serious financial straits when his eccentric
neighbor Neely shows up unannounced. At this point, the only remaining
personal belongings in John's apartment seem to be his glossy publicity
photos, which he tapes methodically in a row on an otherwise naked
wall. The wild-eyed Neely (played with wonderful weirdness by the
wonderfully weird Bud Cort) somehow knows all about John's situation
and his most personal secrets. He tells John that if he will immediately
drive out to the Mojave desert and deliver a locked blue suitcase
to a purported tough guy identified only as Cowboy, he will earn
$25,000 for his efforts (an amount that will just about cover his
first balks at the strange request, but after viewing the thorough
dossier Neely has compiled and contemplating being evicted for nonpayment
of rent, he reluctantly agrees. He insists on a reasonable advance
so that Grace can pay the landlord for him. Then, armed with a pistol
Neely has forced on him, he heads for "the big empty"
(otherwise known as Shoshone/Mohave/Chemehuevi country).
makes his way to isolated Baker, California (modestly legendary
home of The World's Largest Thermometer and the Original Bun Boy),
seeking the enigmatic stranger he's been instructed to meet. He
arrives at the seedy Royal Hawaiian Motel and is greeted by the
planet's creepiest clerk since Norman Bates, a geek called Elron
(John Gries) -- possibly after L. Ron Hubbard? -- who has a metal
plate in his head and a habit of leaving Twinkies on the bed pillows
instead of mints.
John learns that he's missed an apparently angry Cowboy by minutes,
he hits the local bar and begins to encounter as strange a collection
of desert rats as one might imagine would live at the edge of the
"civilized" world. Not only are the denizens of this Gateway
to Death Valley a tad cracked, but many seem convinced that Baker
may actually be something of an interplanetary truck stop, as well
as a conventional one. As he waits for his contact to return, John
soon finds himself more and more entangled in the skewed lives of
the local misfits and sucked ever more deeply into what looks like
quite a bizarre and otherworldly mystery.
the midst of this mix appear two well-known and beloved First Nations
actors, one of whom is playing an ethnically nonspecific role, and
the other the somewhat shopworn"Indian mystic," in a singularly
first of these two is the endearing and inarguably hunky Adam Beach
(Dog Creek Lake Anishinaabe Saulteaux), who in this instance plays
the psychopathically jealous and abusive boyfriend of a relentlessly
seductive town hottie named Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook). Anderson
says that he was interested in using Beach after seeing him in Smoke
Signals and other recent films and enjoying his performances. This
one lends even greater variety to Beach's growing filmography, and
he paints it with multicolored layers.
greatly to Anderson's credit that he considered Beach strictly as
an appropriate talent when casting this role, without regard to
ethnicity. As it turns out, it was nothing short of wise that he
chose Beach to play the role of Randy, who might otherwise have
seemed too heavy and menacing or predictable and melodramatic a
character for the rest of the piece if cast more to type. Beach's
wholesome good looks, sunny smile, and cheerful demeanor make an
inherently loathsome character not only palatable but attractive
... yet he plays it convincingly enough that his slowly revealed
transition to violence feels seamless and not entirely unexpected.
redoubtable Gary Farmer (Six Nations Cayuga) portrays the second
of these characters -- in this case identified as Indian Bob and
delivering lines that sound as inscrutable as stereotypical medicine-man
dialogue, but with tongue planted firmly in cheek and with an atypically
sardonic edge. This is a "shaman" under a floppy hat,
who perfunctorily relieves himself in John's presence in an ironically
comical but suspenseful closing sequence. A man who helps to arrange
for the transport of aliens through the Southern California desert,
Indian Bob can certainly be described as a coyote.
was also aware of Farmer's work before casting The Big Empty and
had admired his abilities. His role may actually have been a later
addition to the cast (he isn't yet credited in several movie databases),
and he seems to be there principally to move the plot around at
the end. This he does quite handily, giving depth and dimension
to a minor character that might otherwise have been simply expository
and ultimately forgettable. This performance is yet another in his
long list of unique and memorable characterizations and, although
smaller than some, does nothing to tarnish his already sterling
reputation as one of the most interesting actors in Indian Country.
notable cast also includes Daryl Hannah as the earnest and principled
bar proprietor and Kelsey Grammer as an over-the-top, fiercely confident
federal agent who shows up to question John after Neely turns up
dead and headless back in L. A. This development makes John more
than a little uncomfortable, especially since he's recently received
an anonymous blue bowling bag by way of Elron, with instructions
from the ever-elusive Cowboy not to open it. When he finally appears,
Sean Bean makes a handsomely menacing figure as Cowboy and rounds
out a collection of uniformly strong and capable performances.
the film's pivotal role, Jon Favreau's amiable, matter-of-fact demeanor
provides an anchor around which the attendant loopiness revolves.
The relatively imperturbable character of John Person acts as a
sort of Everyman, guiding viewers through an unfamiliar landscape
populated by eccentric inhabitants and in which remarkable things
seem to happen in an oddly familiar way. The film's underlying supernatural
quality grows partly through the introduction of small changes,
such as hints of color that might easily go unnoticed consciously.
All the mystery finally culminates with stark graphic imagery on
an eerily beautiful dry lake bed, and it concludes in a resolution
that leaves the audience still curious but ultimately satisfied.
the end, this charmingly mismatched collection of constituent parts
adds up to a uniquely stylized and heartfelt film that is likely
to become at least a guilty pleasure, if not an instant favorite.
Whichever way those chips may fall, it will certainly help to support
and promote the careers of talented Native performers, both now
and into the future.
Entertainment is set to release The Big Empty in select theaters
the very successful AFI FEST 2003, it was worrying to note that
there were no representative American Indian/First Nations films
on the roster. According to a festival programmer, not many were
submitted this year. However, AFI reviewers not only indicate a
willingness to welcome and consider such projects but are quite
anxious to view new work from Indian Country during their deliberation
process in the future.