The Tall Man [Movie review by Lackey]

The Tall Man106 min., 2012
Directed by Pascal Laugier
My rating: 4 stars
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Laugier’s follow-up to Martyrs exceeds expectations.

* * *

French filmmaker Pascal Laugier returns to the screen with his latest effort, the American/Canadian/French co-production The Tall Man. While his 2008 film Martyrs was initially greeted by mixed notices and controversy, I personally loved it and feel it’s one of the best and most important horror films of the new millennium. Expectations are riding high for The Tall Man and I’m pleased to be able to report that Laugier does not disappoint.

The Tall Man stars Jessica Biel as Julia Denning, a young woman who lives in the small, dying Pacific Northwest town of Cold Rock and has served the town as sole medical practitioner since the death of her husband, the town doctor, some years previous. Cold Rock is been plagued by a series of mysterious child disappearances, which has even attracted the attention of federal law enforcement, who have dispatched an agent named Dodd to investigate. The locals whisper that a mysterious figure known only as “the Tall Man” (who–yes, I’m going there–bears no resemblance to Angus Scrimm) is responsible for the disappearances. The case cracks wide open when Julia’s son David becomes the Tall Man’s latest victim, but nobody is prepared for the truth when the secrets finally come to light.

I’ll try to keep the Martyrs comparisons to a minimum, but one thing I want to say about it is that the thing I admired most about it was not the intensity of the thematic material, or the acting, or even the violence and gore, but the structure. OMG SHOCK TWISTS! have never been a rare occurrence in the genre and have become even more obligatory since Shyamalan came to prominence, but what I loved about the shock twists in Martyrs is that they shifted the nature of the story: by the time the closing credits roll, you’re no longer watching the same film you were watching when you pressed the DVD remote’s “play” button 100 minutes earlier.

The Tall Man takes this one step further: while it starts off looking and feeling like a supernatural thriller, its twists fundamentally move it out of the genre and turn it into a film that doesn’t comfortably fit the “horror” label (although I found it darker and more unsettling than most of the “genuine” genre exercises I’ve seen recently). Even when the twists are obvious–and you can probably figure out at least one, maybe two simply by carefully reading and considering what I tell you in this review–they take the story path through some pretty shocking territory, and I’m highly impressed with Laugier’s commitment to cause-and-effect; this film doesn’t cop out in its portrayal of the logical consequences of character actions. I have a couple of minor nitpicks (in particular, there’s one scene where the social commentary isn’t rendered as subtly as it should have been), but overall this is one hell of a good screenplay.

Laugier’s compositional eye has actually improved over the past few years. The Tall Man is beautifully photographed; a particular highlight is brilliant aerial location work that emphasizes how isolated Cold Rock is in its vast rural setting. Other memorable effects work include an electrifying extended stunt sequence. The emphasis many detractors (and even fans) put on the violence in Martyrs begs the question of the role gore and violence play in The Tall Man; there’s none of the former and very little of the later, nothing graphic.

Another inevitable comparison with Martyrs is that The Tall Man is the sort of movie that, no matter how clever the script and pretty the cinematography, requires the perfect cast to pull off. I’m now going to write something I never thought I would ever write:

I was extremely impressed with Jessica Biel’s performance.

In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that The Tall Man is to Biel what Seven was to Brad Pitt: the point which I started taking a glorified fashion model seriously as an actor. The Tall Man rides entirely on the performance of the actress playing Julia and Biel nails the character dead on, delivering the strongest and bravest performance I’ve seen by an actress since…well, to be honest, two weeks when I saw Gretchen Lodge in Lovely Molly. But that aside, a performance this intense and electrifying is rare in the genre.

Biel is the focus of the film but she doesn’t dominate or overshadow her castmates. The remarkable young actress Jodelle Ferland–who’s been impressing me since 2005, when she appeared in Terry Gilliam’s underrated, polarizing Tideland, and also put in a memorable performance in Silent Hill–is amazing as Jenny, a young, mute woman in her teens who sees Julia as a mentor-figure and knows more about the mythical Tall Man than she lets on. The brilliant character actor Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) exudes cocky authority as Dodd. Strong performances also come from William B. Davis (the Cigarette-Smoking Man of X-Files fame) as a beleaguered county sheriff, Eve Harlow (Jennifer’s Body) as Julia’s assistant and Colleen Wheeler as a local homeless woman.

While I could probably nitpick and find a couple of flaws, the only disappointing aspect of The Tall Man is the (already mentioned) fact that it’s ultimately not really a horror film. But no matter: intense, thought-provoking, beautiful and featuring a central performance that deserves Oscar consideration (which is probably won’t get), this film is a remarkable achievement. It will undoubtedly end up being one of the best films of 2012.

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About Lackey

Daniel Lackey blames this whole thing on Richard Matheson and Tobe Hooper, whose works ("Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" and Poltergeist, respectively) sparked his interest in getting the crap scared out of him when he was eight years old. He can be found on Twitter at @Lackey_D.
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