Film Review: The Tall Man
Review by Marc Patterson
Pascal Laugier’s return to the horror genre is shocking, but not in the way you might expect. The director of 2008’s French extreme wave flick Martyrs still wants to play games with your head, and has plenty of social commentary to prattle on about, but has gone a more palatable and less violent route with a thriller set amongst towering pines, a small town on the verge of economic ruin, a fictional Canadian town reminiscent of many Appalachian mining towns, or even north eastern fishing villages. Julia Denning (Jessica Biel, in her most earthy role yet), is a nurse serving as the town’s sole medical practitioner. The former doctor, who happened to be Denning’s husband, recently passed in a sudden, and unexplained, accident, leaving Denning a widow with her tragically cute little boy, David (Jakob Davies).
As we witness Denning help a young mother give birth to a child on a table in a closed down school we learn of the sordid past of this ruined town. It’s under assault from a mysterious taker of children, a shadowy figure known only as The Tall Man. Some say he’s nothing but an urban myth. Others claim to have seen him firsthand. The only thing we know is that children are going missing left and right without a trace and no one from the outside is helping the families of the victims determine the true cause or track down any suspects.
The Tall Man may be an atmospheric and haunting “thriller”, stunningly cinematic, and less shocking than Martyrs, yet it remains distinctively Laugier. Fans of Martyrs will pick up on the subtle and brooding similarities. No, this isn’t stomach churning in-your-face brutality-laden horror, but it’s still a smartly constructed story with questions to ask of the audience. It’s a dark tale that is quite heady and once the credits roll will give you plenty to chat about with your friends. The way in which Laugier twists the story around is quite brilliant. Friends and foes become one and the same. Innocents turn out to be not so innocent. The only problem I see with all of this is that Laugier is a man who has built his reputation as a controversial filmmaker and has effectively created a follow-up effort incredibly tame and excruciatingly safe by comparison. I don’t see that Laugier has taken any risks with The Tall Man and this is a huge disappointment because he’s an incredibly talented filmmaker that should be consistently pushing boundaries instead of taking his unique voice and conforming it to conventional standards, which is exactly what The Tall Man is; too safe, too comfortable, not quite frightening enough.
To his credit Laugier smartly employed Jessica Biel, who turns in a performance that very well may be among her finest to date. I enjoyed her pulpiness in The A-Team, but here the glossiness of a typecast Hollywood facade is stripped away and we get to see her work her way through a complicated role, with a multi-faceted character dealing with a lot of heavy issues. Simply superb stuff. Supporting Biel was Stephen McHattie, who turns in a wonderful performance as Lt. Dodd, the only man in town who seems genuinely interested in sorting out the truth from the lies, though I felt he was grossly underused and would have enjoyed seeing more from his character. In fact, for all the layers going on most of the other characters were fairly two-dimensional. There were some wonderful stories in this town just waiting to come alive and bring some much needed depth to an otherwise complex story that simmers on the surface, but never takes a deeper dive.
Pascal Laugier showcases his ability to take what, in the hands of another filmmaker, may have been a typical “bad shit happening in a small town” story and turn it inside out to create an entertaining and engaging film that’s both original and thoughtful. That said, while it might be a cut above what’s being made by other genre filmmakers it fell considerably short of what I’d expect from Laugier. I expect bigger, riskier and more dangerous cinema – and to that end The Tall Man fell tragically short.
The Tall Man is currently available on VOD through Image Entertainment and will be released in limited theaters on August 31, 2012.