Back in the middle of the last decade, the French seemed to have a purple patch of amazing and brutal original horror films. Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension”, made in 2003, seemed to start the cycle and for the next five years we continually got a new film that seemed to out-do the one previous. Other titles included in this batch were “Frontiere(s)”, “Them” (Ils) and my personal favourite, “Inside”. However the film that seemed to end this successful run was Pascal Laugier’s 2008 effort “Martyrs”, which arguably was the bloodiest of the lot, but separated itself from the pack because of its political agenda and social commentary hidden within. “Martyrs” split horror fans right down the line, as some thought it was outright brilliance, while others deemed it to be pretentious and without any merit. Personally, while I didn’t think the film was perfect, I found myself on the pro-side of the discussion and as such I have been waiting to see what Laugier would produce as a follow-up. Similar to the directors of “Inside”, Laugier initially was attached to do a remake for the Weinstein brothers, “Hellraiser”, but for reasons unknown he later left the project. So four years after “Martyrs” finally his new film has arrived, “The Tall Man”.
When you walk into a film with the credits “Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier” attached to them, you are automatically going to expect a certain kind of film, and I must say that you need to clear your mind of them immediately – “The Tall Man” is not a horror film. It is true that there are moments of great horror within the film, but it is more effectively described as a thriller, and similar to Laugier’s previous film, “The Tall Man” is filled with social commentary. Once again I am writing a review for a film that works so much better the less you know about it going in, so a lot of this review I will be talking in vague terms so as not to give anything away.
The film is set in a small town called Cold Rock. The place used to be a mining town, but since the closure of the mines the place has become a dead-end to its residents. There is little employment, there is no chance of making something of yourself and there appears to be no chance of an escape. Worse is the fact that the children of Cold Rock appear destined to repeat the mistakes of their parents before them, due to the fact there are no opportunities in the town, in fact for all intents and purposes Cold Rock is a dead town that only brings misery. However something much worse is going on in the town as something or someone is regularly kidnapping children, where they disappear for good. The local folk have gone about giving the creature a name, “The Tall Man”, and he terrifies the citizens of Cold Rock. When the film begins, it has been two months since the last child abduction and the town is on edge knowing that it could happen again at anytime. One person who appears to be going about like its normal is the local nurse, Julia Denning (Jessica Biel). Julia herself is a mother of a young boy named David, and is unlike most of the residents of Cold Rock. She is happy, has a good job, lives in a big house and refuses to only see the bad in people. Due to the long hours she works, Julia needs the help of a nanny, Christine, who also lives at the Denning house. One night when the house is asleep, Julia awakens to the sound of smashing glass. Shocked, she runs downstairs to investigate where she finds Christine bloodied and tied up. She quickly bolts to David’s room, only to find him missing. As she goes back downstairs to untie Christine, she lays eyes on the terrifying figure of The Tall Man. He disappears out the door and Julia takes after him in an attempt to get back her boy.
Sadly this is all I can tell you about the film but let me just say that it is full of twists and turns, and I promise you that you will not know where it is going, and once you think you have finally worked it all out, another twist occurs to keep you guessing some more.
The one thing you need to know about “The Tall Man” is that it is Jessica Biel’s show. I have never been a huge fan of Biel’s work as an actress before this. Of course I was not blind to her physical attributes, but I always thought of her as more of a “B” actress. She certainly surprised me with her amazing range in her performance of Julia. The amount of difficult emotions that she has to portray is crazy, but she is believable throughout, and there was not a moment where I thought missed a beat. From caring nurse, to terrified mother, to her state of being by the finale, she does a stellar job and I hope she gets some recognition for her work here. I’m not taking awards here, but at least the chance to be able to do more roles with some depth, which is something her character has here, depth and tons of layers. The other actress that really stood out for me was Samantha Ferris who played Tracy, a mother of two who is in an abusive relationship. She does a great job of portraying a very caring mother who knows that there is nothing left for herself in the world. She has a particularly brilliant and heartbreaking moment at the end, when this tough-as-nails broad breaks down for a couple of seconds and gives into the pain that she has been bottling up for so long.
On the negative side of the acting fence, I must say that I was put off by Jodelle Ferland’s very self conscious and mannered performance as Jenny. She was a character that never worked for me, she played the role too obviously, the strange outsider who refuses to talk. Ironically, Jenny is the narrator of the film. One of the problems I had with the character was that she always seemed to coincidentally be in the right place at the right time to see certain things. This is obviously not a fault of Ferland’s performance, but one of Laugier’s writing. In fact there was an entire sequence in the film that was filled with coincidences that just had me rolling my eyes. It made a very effective and suspense-filled scene lose its sense of reality and took me out of the moment. I’m not ruining anything by saying the scene in question was the one when Julia is chasing after her son. From the single rock that saves her, to the tree branch on the road, the coincidences were many, and it took away from a great scene.
Luckily, this is about all I can say negatively about what Pascal Laugier brings to “The Tall Man”. It is great seeing a director actually want to do something more than just the norm, or what is expected and with this film he really does have a few political points he wants to make. Granted, he may hammer some of these points home a little too heavily, but I like the fact that he has ambition with this project to say something and not just try to scare the audience (not that there is anything wrong with that). The film looks great too with the town being particularly creepy with its dark mine tunnels and its creepy bordering forest, and the production design by Jean-Andre Carriere does a great job of bringing these elements to the foreground to contribute to the dread filled atmosphere. The way Laugier also moves the camera is brilliant and adds so much to the tension of the film. The camera is almost always moving, and some of the shots blew my mind, with their degree of difficulty. One shot in particular has a character escorted into a car with the camera following them into the car, then turning so we see the mob behind the car and ending with a rock being smashed through the window. It may not sound much on paper, but when you see the shot in the film you will wonder just how they did it. Of course Kamal Derkaoui’s dark cinematographer ably assists in ratcheting up the tension as he fills the screen with dark impenetrable shadows.
Now to talk about what the film is actually about without actually talking about it. When all the secrets of “The Tall Man” (the movie, not the myth) are finally revealed, I must admit I was surprised but I really liked the idea, even if I didn’t agree with the politics behind it per se. I am not sure that what our protagonists ultimately do is for the better of everyone involved, even though I believe that the characters themselves think that it is the only thing that can be done. I have no doubt they believe in what they are doing and that it is right, even if it is highly against the law. While Laugier rightfully blasts the idea of a world where the rich get richer while the poor continue to get poorer, I do not believe that the protagonists ideals are those of his own. In fact he even has a character question the moral ethics of it all in the final line of the film.
Overall, I really liked “The Tall Man” especially by how much it surprised me. While I was initially expecting another gore-filled horror film, I was not disappointed by what I got in the slightest. It is great to see a genre film strive to be something more than just entertainment, and I respect Pascal Laugier for once again filling his movie with a social commentary about today’s world. The film has a fantastic lead performance by Jessica Biel, and it looks outstanding. It is such a shame that “The Tall Man” appears to be only getting a limited release around the world (no doubt due to the fact that it is something different for once), but if you get the chance to view it, please do, I recommend it.