John Person (his stage name) is an out-of-work actor living in Los Angeles, with credit card debt of almost $28,000. Across the hall from him lives his friend, Grace. One night, his nebbish neighbor Neely, who wears a neck brace, invades his apartment with an unusual request: deliver a large blue suitcase to the truck stop of Baker, California, where it will be picked up by a man named "Cowboy", for which he will be given $25,000. John is also given a gun to defend against anyone taking the case. He initially refuses and thinks the plan is insane, but Neely has a file containing much of John's personal information, including masturbation preferences and sperm sample test results. Realizing that Neely is serious, John takes the job, but demands that he be given $28,000 to pay off his debts. Neely agrees, and John drives to Baker.
In Baker, he checks into the Royal Hawaiian Motel where he meets Elron, the peppy manager, who tells him that John has just missed meeting "Cowboy," and describes him as wearing a "big, stupid black duster and a black Stetson". Looking for a drink, John meets the bartender Stella, and is immediately held at gunpoint by the hot-tempered Randy, who thinks John is after his girlfriend. Later that night, a young girl named Ruthie comes to John's hotel room and gives back his wallet that he dropped in the bar, and they hit it off. Later, John finds that Ruthie is Randy's girlfriend.
The next day, John goes to a diner and meets Dan, who tells a lot of tall tales and conspiracy theories about what goes on in the desert. Later, John meets Ruthie outside a gas station, where he buys her some beer and Jack Daniels whiskey, and a can of whipped cream. Then, they drive out to Devil's Crest lake bed far out of town. She describes how RVs and people "disappear without a trace" out there. The two then get drunk, mostly on a mixture of Jack Daniels and whipped cream. Ruthie gets sick and faints, so John drives her home to Stella's bar.
The next day, the jealous Randy confronts John and asks what he and Ruthie did at Devil's Crest, and threatens to kill him if he even talks to Ruthie anymore. Later, at the bar, Stella reveals that she's not really Ruthie's mother but that she found Ruthie wandering around the dry lake bed at Devil's Crest when she was two years old.
John goes back to the motel, and hears that he missed Cowboy again, but that Cowboy left him a package: a bowling ball bag that he's supposed to hold on to, and is not allowed to open. Neely's name is on the name tag. Back at the hotel, Grace calls John, and says that Neely was murdered, and that FBI agent Banks was looking for John. She described the murder as Neely getting shot, then beheaded, and tells him Neely's head is missing. John immediately suspects Neely's head is in the bag, but can't be sure, since he can't open the bag.
Candy, a hooker, comes into John's room, because she heard that John was meeting Cowboy. She previously had an "encounter" with Cowboy, and cautions John, because she has heard a rumor that Cowboy abducted three strippers from Las Vegas, and they were never seen again. She describes Cowboy's familiar black duster and Stetson, and John immediately becomes suspicious. John soon buries the bag, and meets FBI agent Banks at the bar, who tries to link him to Neely's murder and 75 mysterious disappearances related to the town of Baker.
The next day, John finds that Randy has stolen his suitcase. He drives down to the junkyard, armed with his gun, and finds that Randy has tied Ruthie up. Randy and John have an armed standoff, but John convinces Randy to let him and Ruthie go by threatening to shoot Ruthie. Later, Ruthie comes to John's hotel room to tell him that Randy was arrested, and they make love.
The following evening, Randy points a shotgun at John, and orders him to drive out to the desert and dig a grave. After the hole is dug, Randy is about to shoot him, but Randy is shot by Cowboy. Cowboy and John go back to the motel, and John finds more suitcases stacked in his room. Cowboy asks John to drive out to the dry lake bed at Devil's Crest with the suitcases, but John refuses, saying "he's done his job." Cowboy convinces John to take the suitcases by using Grace as a hostage. John goes to Devil's Crest and meets Bob the Indian who tells John where to leave the highway and how to arrange the suitcases in a circle, then drives away.
Cowboy arrives in an RV, with a group of travelers in blue tracksuits, similar to one Neely wore. One of the travelers is Ruthie. Cowboy opens the infamous bowling bag, and pulls out a pair of size 11 bowling shoes. He offers them to John, claiming that he will offer him a chance to "come with him" to Paradise. He refuses, so Cowboy instead gives the shoes to the barefooted Ruthie. John asks Ruthie about it, and she excitedly asks John to come with her. He declines, and then Cowboy shoots a flare into the air. John warily asks what the Cowboy is, and is told he is a cowboy, pure and simple, even as his skin begins to turn both blue and translucent. As the flare explodes, John blacks out.
John wakes up alone on a dry lakebed in the middle of the desert. All of the suitcases are open and empty, except for a locked one near John. Frustrated, John takes it, and begins the long walk over sand dunes to the highway. Grace meets him, and says he has been missing for three days. Grace gives John a key from Cowboy and he opens the case to find the $28,000 amount originally promised to him.
Back in L.A., Agent Banks interrogates him about what happened in Baker, which explains the 75 disappearances attributed to Cowboy. Banks says that he can't bring a story like this to the families of those who have disappeared. He then tells John that his credit card debts were already paid off with money unrelated to the $28,000, which he thinks John won in Vegas. Banks hints that he believes John's story, and John sees a band-aid on Banks' neck, similar to one that appeared on John's neck after his encounter at Devil's Crest, which is related to one of the conspiracy theories Dan told John about.
Sometime later, John and Grace are on a date at a bowling alley. Grace congratulates John for getting a supporting role in a movie, implying that John's acting prospects are becoming better. She then repeats the Cowboy's line spoken before firing the flare about starting a new game, and her eyes are bright blue. John, wearing size 11 shoes, remarks she looks different, before he bowls a ball down the alley; John's eyes turn bright blue (another sign of an alien encounter). The bowling ball is then shown rolling across the vast moonlit landscape of Devil's Crest. Far in the distance, white flames, apparently from another flare like the Cowboy's, rise from the desert floor.Jon Favreau as John Person - An out-of-work actor, and the story's protagonist. He keeps waiting for callbacks from "promising auditions" and hangs a number of his headshots on the wall wherever he goes. He is like the story's everyman, reacting rather seriously and deadpan to his situations. John Person is his stage name, and we never learn his real name. His favorite drink is a gin and tonic.
Joey Lauren Adams as Grace - John's friend, who lives across the hall from him. She is slightly nerdy, but is cheery and supportive of John's acting career.
Bud Cort as Neely - John's strange neighbor. He is stocky and squirrely, and wears a neck brace for an unknown reason (John and Grace gossip about why he is wearing it). He is the one who convinces John Person to deliver the suitcase to Baker, California. John finds him rather creepy and Neely somehow knows more than he should about John.
Jon Gries as Elron - The manager of the Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker, California. He is irritatingly peppy and offers John a complimentary hooker and comes into his motel room every morning to wake him up and offer him breakfast. John usually refuses and Elron usually sits in the room and eats them himself. Later, it's discovered that he has a steel plate in his head.
Daryl Hannah as Stella - The bartender at the local bar. She is an easygoing, urbane woman who helps John out.
Rachael Leigh Cook as Ruthie - Stella's adopted daughter. She is somewhat of a "bad girl", with a high alcohol tolerance and a heavily opinionated attitude, but she also has a sweet side. She wants to leave Baker, California to see the world, and is attracted to John's good and supportive nature.
Adam Beach as Randy - Ruthie's boyfriend. He has an obsession with Ruthie, and reacts violently if anyone so much as looks at her. He is psychopathic and threatens to kill John: first with a chainsaw and later with a shotgun.
Brent Briscoe as Dan - A trucker who is always at the diner with John Person, and rambles on about conspiracy theories such as how the government is building a bullet train so that "they can get people liquored up and fire them out into the desert" so they don't notice the numerous UFO sightings around Baker. A lot of his conspiracy theories turn out to offer interesting insights on the story's details.
Sean Bean as Cowboy - A mysterious person who John Person needs to deliver the suitcase to. Cowboy is only alluded to for most of the movie as "the guy with a big, black duster and black Stetson". He is a classic cowboy (despite his English accent) with a gravelly voice and tough attitude. His role, though, is much more strange: his job is to gather up people to be taken away by aliens at a "jump point" outside Baker, California.
Kelsey Grammer as Agent Banks - An FBI agent who suspects John has a role in the unusual occurrences in Baker. He has a certain fast-talking wit and grandiosity about himself, possibly for the use of "good cop" interrogation. He may also have been involved in what is going on in Baker.
Gary Farmer as Indian Bob - A sarcastic Native American who guides John Person to the "jump point" in the dry lake bed, instructs him what to do, and offers him homespun wisdom about making the most out of life.
Melora Walters as Candy - A hooker who works for the motel where John Person is staying, as a complimentary service to the guests. She is a bit of an airhead, but she offers important information about Cowboy's motives.
The Big Empty was all shot on location in Los Angeles and Baker, California, which is a real town in southern California where most of the story takes place. Many of its locations are real, including the Royal Hawaiian Motel. Several landmarks in Baker are also shown, including the world's tallest thermometer. The Alto Nido apartments where John Person is living are the same apts that William Holden lived in the beginning of "Sunset Blvd". While the famous Hollywood Star Lanes was used in an exterior shot near the end of the story, the interior shots of the bowling alley were filmed at a different location.
Echo Lake Productions
North by Northwest Entertainment