A film for art house patrons who can both identify with those whose politics push them toward extremes and see the craziness in these impulses, Empty Metal centers on secretive radical groups who have more in common than they’d think. In their first feature, Bayley Sweitzer and Adam Khalil experiment with storytelling modes, combining narrative and faux-doc styles with sequences that would be at home in art-gallery video installations. While its take on activist rage (rooted mostly in the use of deadly force against people of color) has academic overtones and is directed at an artsy fringe, there’s also a deep political paranoia at the film’s core that, sadly, has a much broader resonance for Americans circa 2019.
After a moody introduction with end-of-the-world overtones, the pic seems to begin as a portrait of twentysomething cluelessness. Three young hipsters in a band called Alien are being interviewed by Queen Omega (Alex Esco), a woman who isn’t quite buying their smash-the-state postures. How, exactly, is being in a rock band fixing the racism, sexism and institutionalized violence that plagues America?
Queen Omega is actually grooming the musicians (played by Sam Richardson, Austin Sley Julian and an artist who goes by Pvssyheaven) to become assassins — soldiers who will execute men who have killed innocent youths in high-profile incidents, then escaped punishment. The movie clearly has real people in mind, though it bleeps their names and scrambles images of their faces; in other scenes, it uses CG animation to accompany audio from seemingly real testimony about police-shooting cases. The film will eventually use some cloak-and-dagger tropes to show the plan being put into action, but even this is a far cry from the kind of mainstream counterculture thrillers of the 1970s, and first we’ll have mysterious sequences in which Omega confers with her older confederates, each of whom comes from a different oppressed group.
Elsewhere, we see a more familiar collection of radicals — bearded white militia-bros, training with heavy weaponry and arguing about the merits of one assault rifle over another. Dialogue and cutting quietly point out that both these groups see the government as the enemy; and at their upper levels, the groups have connections that aren’t known to their foot soldiers. Americans who earnestly wonder aloud if the right and the left can find any kind of common ground probably don’t have this in mind, but to the forces invested in America’s status quo, they’re practically interchangeable targets.
“I’d rather do something stupid than pointless,” one of the musicians says while trying to convince her bandmates to join the mission she’s been offered. That’s a fine crystallization of sentiments all over the political spectrum, pushing the impotent toward everything from misdirected vandalism to Twitter mobs to voting for an obviously phony champion of the forgotten working man. Empty Metal pairs this powerless desperation, and the sense that “a confused, anticlimactic rot” has made the apocalypse irrelevant, with more than a whiff of surveillance-state panic. For viewers wanting to steep themselves further in this upsetting atmosphere, closing credits include a bibliography ranging from Marcus Garvey to William S. Burroughs.
Production company: Prone Pictures
Distributor: Factory 25
Cast: Pvssyheaven, Sam Richardson, Austin Sley Julian, Alex Esco, Wendel “Oba” Scott, Mazikeen LaGuerre, Jon Nandor, Pawel Wojtasik
Directors-screenwriters: Bayley Sweitzer, Adam Khalil
Executive producers: Steve Holmgren, Tiffany Sia, Andrew Fierberg, Hector Velarde, Alex Lazarowich