Someone, or something, is stealing the children of Cold Rock.
A defunct mining town nestled in the misty forests of Washington state, this little community has come under attack by a force no one can explain or identify. There are numerous reports of a shadowy, indistinct figure known as ‘the tall man’, an invader only glimpsed fleeing into the sheltering darkness of the woods.
The tall man, not to be confused with Angus Scrimm’s inter-dimensional undertaker from Phantasm, is only a legend until nurse Julia Denning gives chase when he snatches her young son from his bed. Now, the secrets of Cold Rock and the identity of this spectral force will be revealed as Julia sets out on a quest to retrieve her son from the kidnapper.
It sounds like the perfect hook for a really good X-Files episode, and with the presence of actors like William B. Davis (the Cigarette Smoking Man himself), Stephen McHattie and Jodelle Ferland, it looks like one too. The fact that gloomy, foggy Canada is standing in for Washington doesn’t hurt things either. The truth however, is that The Tall Man isn’t at all the movie its genre trappings would suggest. The first English language film from French director Pascal Laugier (his last film was the odious but revered Martyrs), Man may create an atmosphere of dread and hysteria masking sadness and melancholy, but it isn’t a horror film at all. Right up-front, this bait-and-switch undermines the unnerving effect Laugier is going for, and the multiple reveals at the close render the entire story rather pointless.
This is a shame, because until it dives off the rails in its second half, there’s something rather persuasive and engrossing about The Tall Man. After an opening narration detailing the plight of missing children in the U.S., we are launched into the middle of the story, with Jessica Biel’s Julia recovering from a skirmish with the alleged boogeyman. Initially this is a tightly plotted gothic trinket, and Laugier demonstrates as he did with the early sections of Martyrs that he has a knack for disarming audience expectations and crafting sleek, nail-biting suspense sequences. The chase scene between Biel and the figure that took her child is a stand-out for this sort of thing. Biel, made up to look dowdy as a widow running a free clinic for kids, gives a strong performance that can do everything but convince us she’s a plain Jane. McHattie and Davis do good work as the craggy set dressing all fine tales of sordid mystery require.
Although it moves about in time, the focus of the film is on Biel and her search for answers, and the structure promises resolution and closure to its mystery in the final third. This is where the problems come in. Lagier is a stylist and game-player first, a preacher second, and a storyteller third. He spins a campfire tale that gets us on the edge of our seat, head resting on our hands, ready to be thrilled. Then he repeats the mistake he made with Martyrs and yanks the rug out from under us, pranking the audience and then stepping on his soap-box. It’s the equivalent of those Christian haunted houses from the 80’s where marks were brought in under the guise of being frightened and presented instead with a ham-fisted, strong-armed attempt to wring repentance from them.
In Martyrs, Laugier gave us characters whose lives we cared about, and then placed them in a no-win situation, their fate rendered obvious, proceeding to torture them onscreen in the name of profundity. The added layer of implied existential terror only muddied the water more and the smug pretense further soiled an already mean trick. At first glance, I was convinced that he had improved with The Tall Man. Gone are most of the excesses and cruelty that Martyrs wallowed in for shock value, and the character of Julia was treated with a sympathetic and delicate hand. But almost from the first frame, Laugier has one hand on the camera and one finger-pointed out at neglectful parents and the obvlious naivety of middle-America when it comes to our children.
It’s almost amusing how wide a swing this is for Laugier; his first film was the kind of thing your seedy, deranged cousin would slip to you on a vhs during a family reunion, while Tall Man is much closer to that flick your parents enthusiastically recommend as a ‘wild story’ after catching it in the middle of the day on the Lifetime network. The Tall Man ultimately doesn’t care about its setting or much about its central character, and the way it misuses the titular spectre, as well as communal mythmaking in general, is rather negligent. If Laugier had an interesting destination, then maybe this departure wouldn’t matter, but when the end comes we find ourselves being confronted by a foreign voice, claiming to know all of our troubles. He may be a talented filmmaker, but so far Laugier has not proven himself to be a genuine one. The fact he thinks he can sell Biel as frumpy should have been the key warning sign.