The Big Empty (1997) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

What a surprise. A micro-budget film that I expected to hate as much as I hate the rest of them. Wrong. Without any irony at all, I recommend this film to you young filmmakers who are strapped for cash. It is an excellent demonstration of how to make an excellent film with no budget.

Step one. Choose a genre that one can afford. Period pieces cost money. Explosions and destruction cost money. F/X cost money. This is one of those film noir detective stories with the hard-boiled narration, set in the present.

Step two. The script is paramount. A good script can overcome many flaws. The plot is less important than the dialogue and characterization. Plot-driven films always seem to get caught up in mammoth logical flaws.

Step three: small number of characters, cast carefully. This film has essentially only three characters, and each of the actors was allowed to create the character necessary to the tone. Each of the performances was appropriate, so the occasional bad reading from an extra doesn't get noticed.

Step four: don't get crazy with plot twists. The noir genre is really atmosphere and characterization. The usual plot is this - woman walks into a P.I.'s office and asks him to work on some innocuous case that expands into a massive conspiracy. You don't need the massive conspiracy if the original assignment produces the right emotional resonance.

Step five: there are some talented directors, editors, and DP's out there who will virtually work for free for a chance to do a full-length film. Find one, because the real difference between a watchable film and an unwatchable one, whether good or bad, is pacing, and that is created in the editing room. The difference between an average film and a good one is atmosphere, and the director co-ordinates the sound and visuals.

Bonus: I guess it really helps if the writer, the guy who had a specific tone in mind, is also an actor capable of playing one of the lead characters exactly as he envisioned it.

This film caught it just right. Take away any of the components, and it would fall flat. The stylish visuals, which emphasize the smallness of man upon an immense stage, are perfectly enhanced by the usual film noir music, dominated by the sad, wailing sax.  There are three characters, all somewhat offbeat, and the actors were hired for their ability to work within the strangeness and dark humor of the tone. Since all three of them did well, there aren't any of those artificial moments so common to low budget films, in which the actors seem to be reading badly from cue cards.


The P.I. may have Bogart's mannerisms and his unflinching gaze, but he's not a cool, tough, battle-hardened guy who used to be a top cop. He's kind of a geek who got into being a P.I. because he was tired of his life as a waiter wearing a red and yellow polyester uniform, and he needed to add some romance to his lonely, rumpled existence. He mimics the Bogart/Mitchum narration beautifully, and never turns it into parody, but he's just not their kind of guy. He may have Harrison Ford's face and voice, but the rest of him is a low-rent, down-and-out Lieutenant Columbo. He's not Marlowe, but what rather what Marlowe would be if rewritten by Graham Greene.

For example, he gets distracted when working on a divorce case, ends up picking up an ugly hooker and performs his ultimate sexual fantasy. As we join the bedroom scene, he's apologizing for what he has just done, and by the degree of apology, we think that he must have completed some unspeakable sexual act. He just isn't being cool at all. As the camera moves, it reveals the act he actually committed: he always wanted to screw a really ugly girl with a paper bag over her head. 


Linda Sue Murphy played the girl with a bag over her head. Her nudity was done tastefully, briefly, and far from the camera. Almost nothing is visible, but she does appear to be naked and one breast is visible as she is bent over and lashed to the bed.
 His career case comes when, as is typical in the genre, a lovely and vulnerable young woman wants to find out why she saw her husband making out with a woman outside of his workplace.  Her husband appears on the surface to be the world's greatest human being, and they appear to have a special bond that allows them to create a "world of two". Their relationship is perfect, except for the kiss she witnessed, which was obviously not platonic.

Several things happen to complicate the case:

  • the poor schmuck P.I. falls in love with the woman on first sight
  • the husband really is the world's nicest guy, and runs a shelter for the homeless. The P.I. is shocked to discover what the husband is actually up to. His compassion runs so deep that he has sex with the people in the shelter when they need it desperately. One elderly street man had been a closeted homosexual all of his life, trapped in a Catholic marriage. His wife was now dead, and he was on the streets, dying of cancer, never having acted on his homosexuality. The client's compassionate husband, though not homosexual, feels the man's pain so deeply that he pleases him sexually. The P.I. is shocked when he views his surveillance tapes and sees the handsome young studmuffin husband in the clinches with an ugly, toothless, decrepit old man.
  • at first the P.I. can't bear to report the truth back to the wife. He confronts the husband, tells him about the surveillance, gives him the tape, and says he's going to tell the wife that he could find no evidence of any affair.
  • but then the P.I.'s own love/lust for the wife causes him to change his mind, and tell her everything
  • and then the P.I. ends up having to rescue the husband, when the guy retires to a chair and stays there for days, nearly dying of hunger and thirst after the wife left him. The husband is so sensitive that he can't bear the pain he caused his wife.
  • after a few more minor twists, the P.I. doesn't get the girl. She just doesn't love him. She loves the husband. Months pass, but the P.I. still goes every day to the spot in the park where he first saw her. He knows she will never show up there again, but that doesn't seem to matter.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • no widescreen, but some good features

  • Full-length director commentary

  • Making-of featurette

I'll give these guys the highest compliment I can. If I had an appropriate concept and wanted to make a good film with a minimal budget, I would hire these guys (the director and the writer/star)  in a flash. As you can see, the script uses the film noir genre to tell a real human story, albeit a very odd one. There are no shoot-outs or car crashes or ludicrous plot contrivances, just people in pain trying to deal with it.

And as depressing as the film is, it is also funny, beautifully performed, and the director did a great job on the atmosphere, using only simple real-life settings and an evocative jazz score. And I loved the literate, existential dialogue.  I liked the camera work as well. I even liked the title. 

Nice job, guys. Nobody will ever see your movie, but you did good.

Writer/actor McManus and director Jack Perez teamed up for one more movie, La Cucaracha, which was the grand prize winner at the Austin Film Festival in 1999, and impressed Roger Ebert enough to merit three stars, while the Austin Chronicle gave it three and a half. I was impressed enough with The Big Empty that I ordered a copy of La Cucaracha.

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews online

  • winner of "Best New Writer" at the L.A. Film Festival, and I agree. This is a remarkable script, an original twist on an old formula, consistently literate and challenging.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.5 
  • no theatrical distribution
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. An excellent genre film that occasionally had me baffled, surprised me at least once, caused me to laugh out loud a couple of times, and sometimes brought me to tears.

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