With his notorious debut feature, Martyrs, French director Pascal Laugier made the torture-porn movie to end all torture-porn movies, not only because it could hardly be more extreme—only the risible A Serbian Film ups the ante in that department—but because it acted as a meta-commentary on the subgenre. Laugier does not try to top himself in The Tall Man, his peculiar follow-up, and it seems at first that he’s sublimating his darker instincts for a conventional English-language horror movie. But Laugier is a sly devil, and just like Martyrs, The Tall Man turns on a well-planted twist that leaves horror behind for psychological intensity and a much larger and more ambitious plot mechanism. It doesn’t try for anything like the first film’s shock value, but it’s novel, thought-provoking, and defiant of genre expectations.
In easily her best performance—and sadly, one few will see, given the film’s modest release strategy—Jessica Biel stars as a single mother in Cold Rock, Washington, a small town ravaged by unemployment and widespread poverty. The only attention Cold Rock ever gets is for its abundance of child-abduction cases, which local legend pins on a mysterious and possibly spectral figure known as The Tall Man. Having already lost her husband, Biel grapples with a fresh trauma as The Tall Man comes to get their only son, sending her on a frantic search to track him down. Jodelle Ferland co-stars as the mute daughter of neglectful, abusive trailer dwellers, who may have special insight into the case.
Setting The Tall Man in a secluded Northwest forest town gives the film the quality of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about lost children venturing into the deep, dark woods. Though Laugier provides the obligatory atmospherics, he isn’t interested in straight-up scares so much as the tense investigation of who The Tall Man is, and what his motives might be. The answers, when they come, are unpredictable, but they require a lot of long-winded explanation that sometimes saps the film of dramatic urgency. Still, The Tall Man doesn’t behave like typical VOD fodder, thanks to the startling conviction of Biel’s performance and a twist that deepens its concerns about the welfare of children. Laugier isn’t out to repulse this time around, but his instincts as a provocateur haven’t vanished.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Tall Man's Spoiler Space.