The Big Empty is a difficult film to describe. Released to film festivals in 2003, it doesn’t seem to have gotten a wide release. It was written and directed by Steve Anderson, his first credit for either job, and very nearly his only credit; he has written a couple of films since, and directed a documentary on the F word. For his directorial debut, he did a very good job; he has several familiar actors who all turn in solid or great performances, and the film is filled with some very good shots. The film looks great, and the way the film emphasizes the isolation of the setting helps sell the strangeness of the many characters that inhabit it.
The film stars Jon Favreau, who has become known as a director himself. He plays struggling actor John Person — a stage name — and has a constant look of bewildered confusion on his face, even when he’s blending it with anger, or tenderness, or desperation. This is perfectly fitting with the movie, as while The Big Empty is listed as a comedy on IMDb and other sites, it’s not so much funny “ha ha” as it is funny weird.
Funny weird is also a good way to describe Bud Cort’s role.
John Person is thoroughly down on his luck. He had a TV series once, but it only lasted three episodes. He hasn’t had a breakthrough role in a film, and he hasn’t had a callback from an audition in a long time. He makes his living as a courier, and it’s not a very good living. He’s underwater on his credit card bills, and two months behind on his rent. He doesn’t seem to have any family or friends in L.A., with the exception of his neighbor Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), with whom he seems to have a mutual crush that neither fully acts on. Their dialogue is friendly and just a little awkward, and there’s just enough chemistry between Favreau and Adams to sell the notion that each is interested in the other but too nervous to come out and say it.
Just when things are looking low for John, possible salvation comes in the form of his exceptionally weird neighbor Neely (Bud Cort). Neely is clearly demented, and seems to be stalking John. He has accumulated a large file on John, including the fact that John Person is only a stage name; the file contains his history, personal habits, and more intimate details. Really intimate. But Neely has an offer for John. Just a standard courier job. Take a blue briefcase to Baker, California, a town in the middle of nowhere. Deliver it to “the Cowboy”. In exchange, John will be paid enough to wipe out his debt — over 27,000 dollars. John assumes Neely is just acting like a lunatic as usual, but then Neely gives him an advance of two thousand to pay his back rent. The offer is clearly too good to be true, but it’s also too good to refuse. John takes the job.
Ordinary jobs don’t start in the dark of night.
Bud Cort’s role as Neely is very impressive, as he manages to seem both sincere and completely out of his gourd all at the same time. It’s probably the most impressive bit of acting in the film. But it’s far from the only good performance, and far from the only strange one. After John arrives in Baker, he misses his initial meeting time with the Cowboy, and that leads to him meeting the various residents of the town, all of whom seem to be just a little off-kilter. The only sane person there seems to be Stella the bartender (Daryl Hannah), and she has her hands full dealing with her adopted daughter Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook). Ruthie’s a wild child, looking to find anything interesting in town before she’s finally able to get out of Baker and never look back, and quickly latches onto John as something novel. But that leads to trouble for John in the form of Ruthie’s ex-boyfriend Randy (Adam Beach).
Randy’s a bit unstable, but that doesn’t raise any eyebrows in Baker.
Hannah and Cook work great in their roles, and even though their interaction with each other is kind of limited, it’s easy to picture Stella as having raised Ruthie. And Beach perfectly defines poorly-controlled rage in Randy. Character actors Jon Gries and Brent Briscoe play a couple of the Baker residents who seem to have odd boundary issues; motel owner Elron has no qualms walking into John’s room and sitting on his bed while John is waking up in the morning, and truck driver Dan is suspicious of John and demands to know how John knows his name (it’s on his cap and shirt.) Kelsey Grammer shows up as FBI Agent Banks, who is investigating the Cowboy, and his attempts to interrogate John are hilarious as he plays both good cop and bad cop with the paper-thin excuse that he’s writing a screenplay and practicing the lines. Gary Farmer plays Indian Bob, who gives John further instructions as the job goes further into weirdness, all while maintaining he wants no part of the spooky stuff himself. And finally Sean Bean eventually shows up as the Cowboy himself, and is as chilling as his reputation, as odd as the other characters in the film, and yet strangely charming in his own way.
He’s almost friendly when casually threatening peoples’ lives.
I don’t know if I could really explain the plot if I wanted to. It made a modicum of sense as it went along, at least as much as any film that relies on a central mystery (in this case, just what’s in the briefcase, who Cowboy is, and why John has to do all these things to complete the delivery). And the ending, while leaving some very large questions, feels like a satisfactory ending. And yet when it’s all done the viewer is likely to still be asking, just like John, just what exactly took place. There’s an intentional element of oddness and confusion to the film. But for all of that, it’s a strangely charming film as well. Favreau as John Person makes for a likeable protagonist, in over his head, but not above making snarky remarks at the downright bizarre people he has to put up with. And those people are interesting and entertaining to watch. They may not necessarily be funny in the classic sense of the word, but they’re definitely different.
And ultimately that’s how The Big Empty strikes me. It’s kind of funny, but it’s more weird than humorous. But it’s weird in a good way. It throws several strange personalities in with each other, and watches them bounce off each other in a plot that slowly builds on its own weirdness so that by the time the ending finally comes along, anything is acceptable. It’s strange. But it’s also pretty good.