Near the beginning of Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s terrific new film Empty Metal (2018), which premieres at the Film Society Lincoln Center in New York on Sunday, a deadpan voiceover makes a counterintuitive distinction between the ideas of ‘apocalypse’ and the end of the world. ‘Apocalypse’ is defined not in terms of destruction, but as a ‘uncovering or disclosure of knowledge’; the end of the world, on the other hand, is destructive, but it is also a ‘matter of perspective’. Most people, the narrator intones, imagine the end as something that will happen simultaneously to everyone, but in reality, the destruction of life-worlds is staggered: ‘for us, the end of the world happened a long time ago.’
This declaration is immediately followed by found footage of Native protestors encountering a line of US police. The protestors proclaim that they are unarmed and peaceful, but the cops bring in dogs and march forward in lockstep, chanting ‘move back’. The juxtaposition between the voiceover’s theoretical discourse and the distressing interruption of documentary reality is a powerful illustration of the fact that many people in the US have already been stripped of their land, their heritage and their communities.
Most of Empty Metal does not proceed in such an illustrative manner, but splits into a series of interwoven narratives. The main plotline involves a discontent young Brooklyn band. Disappointed by their record label, their fans, and themselves, they are approached by a trio of telepathic revolutionaries (a Native activist, a Rastafarian and a European mystic) who have determined that the band’s apathy has peaked, readying them for action. Following a ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ logic, the band is tasked with a mission to kill three men who have, in the last few years, publicly gotten away with murdering young black men with impunity (these murderers are never named in the movie, but their identities are not ambiguous).
The early scenes with the band are directed in an almost mumbling style: bored complaints, vague ambitions, banal conversations over banal food. But Empty Metal doesn’t mock its characters, nor does it set them up to be relatable in their helplessness. Rather, the film depicts them as living out the consequences of a condition: they know that power is oppressive, they know there’s no future open to them, but there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it except make art – their one outlet for both imagination and negativity – but even that is becoming increasingly unsatisfying. So, when they’re improbably approached with the opportunity to exact justice, they barely hesitate.
Besides, they might have had some supernatural help in their decision making; the trio which recruits the band to their cause seem to be trans-historical spirits who have inspired revolt across time and geography (‘I haven’t seen you since the last revolution –what was it, the LA riots?’ ‘No, no, Wounded Knee.’). The trio does not make an argument for killing the murderers; they don’t convince the band that it’s a good idea or suggest that vengeance will lead to change. Rather, they tap into the band’s embodied, affective, knowledge of injustice and the intuition that the destruction of worlds and lives requires a radical response.
Like the discontinuity of revolt, Empty Metal doesn’t move in a straight line: it jumps quickly between scenes, and the relationship between all the moving parts only becomes clear about halfway through. The main story, which is already rather fragmented, is routinely interrupted by animations of fatal encounters with cops, a tangential plotline involving an earnest armed militia with dreams of battling the government, and found footage from television and YouTube. Further, selections from French composer Éliane Radigue’s drone music plays through much of the film, no longer functioning as meditative, slowly unspooling sound, but re-contextualized to add tension and mystery.
This dizzying arrangement of elements is only occasionally broken by more static set pieces. Though the action sequences are exciting and well-directed (and it’s fun to see a heady multidirectional movie suddenly pull off slick genre moves), it’s worth being sceptical of the film’s depiction of vengeance. The climactic scenes are perhaps a bit too tidy: there’s nothing excessive, perverse, or fucked up about the killings; the band executes their targets swiftly, efficiently, and without emotion. It’s enjoyable to watch them act like assassins in a spy movie, but in this way, vengeance is represented as just, orderly and satisfying. I don’t intend to make a quietist argument, in which all vengeance (or revolutionary violence) is poisoned by amorality: rather, I’m quibbling that a movie about the disruptive power of non-linear time and asymmetrical revolt depicts vengeance as linear and symmetrical.
That said, Empty Metal as a whole is not a whole; Khalil and Sweitzer’s film is pointed in its politics and inspiring in its imaginative reach, energetically rejecting a bird’s-eye view that would bring all its pieces into a clear narrative (or moral) order. In fact, the only bird’s-eye view in Empty Metal comes from drone footage: throughout, the characters are surveilled from above, and there’s the strong suggestion that everything is being watched and recorded. The view of the drones is a stand-in for one that imagines itself to be total (the perspective that imagines the end of the world will come for everyone at once). But of course, such a view is not total: surveillance has its limits, revolt is not suppressed and ultimately, as the title declaims, the drones are merely empty metal. On the other hand, the humans in the film may be confused, their perspectives partial, and their actions imperfect, but for these reasons they are not empty, and the distance between apathy and action is not so far.
Empty Metal premieres at the Film Society Lincoln Center in New York on Sunday, 6 May, as part of the ‘Art of the Real 2018’ programme, with a Q&A with the co-directors, cast and crew.
Main image: Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal, film still. Courtesy: Steady Orbits