What I’ve Been Watching: The Big Empty (2003).
Who’s Responsible: Steve Anderson (writer-director), Jon Favreau, Joey Lauren Adams, and Sean Bean (stars).
Why I Watched It: Quirk factor.
Seen It Before? No.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 6.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 5.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? I’ve seen many films that were too weird for their own good, but Anderson’s first feature is one of the few that wasn’t quite weird enough…which isn’t to say that I didn’t like it, yet sometimes it’s preferable to go all the way with a Repo Man or Big Lebowski. It was a little strange watching Favreau, whom I’d enjoyed in indie fare such as Swingers and Made, while thinking that many younger viewers know him, if at all, as the director of Iron Man. Here, he’s failed actor John Person, whose deeply strange neighbor, Neely (Bud Cort), knows way too much about his personal life and offers him enough money to pay all his debts if he will deliver a mysterious blue suitcase, unopened, to a desert town.
Confiding in his other neighbor, Grace (Adams), a pretty girl in the glasses-and-hair-in-a-bun tradition, John heads for the appointed motel in Baker, where he manages to miss his notoriously volatile contact, Cowboy (who may be a serial killer), more than once. At a nearby bar, he meets the owner, Stella, who seems to be the only normal person around; when the credits came at the end I was shocked to see that the woman I’d struggled to i.d. behind her bangs was Daryl Hannah. The rest are a bunch of whack jobs spouting stories about alien abductions, but John’s most dangerous entanglement is with Stella’s daughter Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook), whose boyfriend Randy (Adam Beach) is a jealous psycho.
Things take a turn for the weirder when Grace calls to tell him that Neely has been killed and beheaded, which gives ominous significance to the bowling-ball bag Cowboy leaves for John with instructions that it, too, remain unopened. Soon, he is visited by FBI Agent Banks (an excellent Kelsey Grammer), an aspiring screenwriter who questions him about Neely, but John, fearing he will lose his pay-off, reveals nothing. When Cowboy appears at last, it is in the form of Sean Bean, who made a memorable Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring and had already burnished his mysterious-suitcase credentials in another BOF favorite, John Frankenheimer’s late-career classic Ronin, before donning his duster here.
The increasingly unhinged Randy, driven to distraction by John’s continued contact with Ruthie (which she usually initiates), steals the suitcase and abducts her, but although John recovers both at gunpoint, you know another encounter with a more permanent resolution is in the cards. Come to think of it, I guess it did get pretty weird by the end, which I will not spoil for you here, although not everything is spelled out unambiguously in any case. Between the title and the bowling motif, which comes to the fore in the last few minutes, I did wonder if Lebowski were an influence, but if so, Anderson borrows from the best, and either way, this is a quirky, engaging debut that bodes well for an interesting career.