Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled The Tall Man

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.