The Tall Man’s twists and turns make for a fun time, but its attempts at provocation fail miserably.
The Tall Man
Pascal Laugier arrived on the horror scene in the same way an 18-wheeler ‘arrives’ through a brick wall when he released Martyrs in 2008. Part of the French new wave of horror that included Inside, Frontier(s) and High Tension, it was by far the most violent and provocative film to come out of France’s horror revival. Four years later Laugier returns with The Tall Man, an ambitious yet flawed horror film that doesn’t show much progress since Martyrs.
Taking place in a small US mining town called Cold Rock (which is obviously Canada), The Tall Man’s title is explained through a series of news broadcasts showing a large number of missing child reports. Every few months a child vanishes from Cold Rock without a trace, and the townspeople talk about a tall man who snatches the children away. The first act establishes how Cold Rock is a ghost town now that its mines are shut down. Julia (Jessica Biel), the town’s only nurse, spends her time helping out the poverty-stricken community while mourning the loss of her husband. Julia is now raising her son with a young babysitter (Eve Harlow) until one night when Julia sees the titular tall man taking her child away.
At this point there’s no need to explain any more plot details in The Tall Man. Part of what made Martyrs so surprising was the way Laugier appeared to hit a reset button halfway through the film, redefining it on a scale far greater than its simple revenge story. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Tall Man utilizes the same tactic, except this time the reset button is hit repeatedly. Laugier structures the film in a way that constantly re-defines the story, taking genre conventions and completely throwing them out at every possible opportunity. Each new plot development adds to the lunacy until we’re so far removed from the film’s original set-up that it feels like an entirely different movie is playing. While none of it makes any sense, viewers will be on their toes throughout trying to figure out what’s going on.
Once Laugier finally pulls back the curtain, The Tall Man falls flat on its face. Like Martyrs, social commentary is thrown in (this time it’s political rather than spiritual/religious) which screeches everything to a halt. Some amount of admiration should be given to Laugier for having the balls to attempt what he’s doing here, but his ideas are flat-out stupid. The ludicrous final act is only made worse by its self-serving tone. The film is trying to get people to really think about what it’s saying, but if anyone tried to think about it for more than a few seconds the message would easily fall apart.
After its premiere at this year’s SXSW festival, critics seemed baffled by The Tall Man. While it may feel completely different from Martyrs (especially with the lack of gore), both films share an ambitious scale and defiance of genre conventions. The Tall Man’s twists and turns make for a fun time, but its attempts at provocation fail miserably. Laugier’s ambitions are commendable, but they just don’t succeed.