This is a 100% spoiler-free review!!
By now I don’t think it’s a huge mystery that I love the 2008 film MARTYRS. Not only is it one of the best genre films I’ve ever seen, but I rank it as the best genre film of the 2000’s, and I’m pretty damn confident that nothing is going to come close to beating it. Writer-director Pascal Laugier gave us one of the most disturbing and nihilistic films about suffering, victimhood, despair, and the meaninglessness of existence while at the same time searching for the meaning of life in the face of an absurd world. It’s a stunning film that gets deep under your skin and changes you after viewing it. With it’s high ideals, utter nihilism, and visceral images you’ll never look at genre films (or basements) the same way again after watching MARTYRS. Well Laugier has returned four years later with THE TALL MAN. What could one hope to expect in the follow up to one of, if not the best, genre film of the century? Is Laugier the equivalent of a one-hit wonder who is destined to disappear for a while only to resurface playing at county fairs? After watching THE TALL MAN twice in 24 hours I can say that Laugier is a modern master who both transcends and redefines the genre. Big claim, I know.
THE TALL MAN stars Jessica Biel as Julia, the doctor in a dying little town. There’s a lot of references to her husband, the town’s first doctor who died, but we really don’t get the entire backstory. As if the town wasn’t suffering enough, there also seems to be a problem with children disappearing and never being seen or heard from again. As the film opens there are 18 kids who’ve disappeared without a trace. Rumors have surfaced that there’s a Tall Man (no; not Angus Scrimm) who’s kidnapping the kids for some unknown, horrible reason(s). Biel doesn’t seem all that concerned with rumors of the Tall Man and doesn’t let it affect her or alter her life. Until, that is, one night the Tall Man strikes Biel’s home and kidnaps her son David (Jakob Davies). Now the race is on to try and unravel the mystery of the Tall Man, who he/she/it is, and what he/she/it is doing to the kidnapped children. This is about as far as I can go into the plot without giving any essential plot details away. All I’m going to tell you is that where this story goes and what it becomes is something you aren’t expecting — not in a million years.
The acting here is fantastic. Biel gives what is perhaps her best and most mature performance to date. Other cast member, Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), Lt. Dodd (Stephen McHattie), Sheriff Chestnut (William B. Davis), and Tracy (Samantha Ferris) all do great jobs in their challenging roles. The characters are well written and don’t fall into the trap of doing the typical, annoying actions that only make their situations worse. And say what you will about Laugier … the man knows how to write some fantastic female roles. The females in his films are flawed yet strong, vibrant, survivors, and fighters. But damn Laugier likes to fuck up his lead female actresses!!
I must warn some of you that THE TALL MAN is not a horror film in the traditional sense. Yes it’s gonna make you very uncomfortable; yes it’s going to stay with you a few days after seeing it; but no, there’s no gore or disturbing images here compared to MARTYRS. This is definitely more of a psychological-thriller with horror overtones. The dying town of Cold Rock used to be a bustling little town with a busy mine until it was closed down. Now unemployment, alcoholism, and depression have hit this quickly dying town. To make matters worse, someone or something is abducting the town’s children as if to ensure the town has no future. I wanna say so much more here but I won’t (in order to keep this spoiler-free). Child abduction is itself a horrible topic to deal with, and it gets worse when the writer is Pascal Laugier. Laugier really challenges the viewer in THE TALL MAN and dares us to stay with him. He’s a risky filmmaker, but he’s also a brilliant one. Laugier really fucks with the viewer and takes us on a very windy trip … there’s no lame-ass Shyamalanian twists here, but Laugier does keep the viewer on their toes. I’ve never seen a filmmaker take so many chances in one film (don’t worry; you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about after you see this), but the payoff is well worth trying to keep up with Laugier. Laugier is uncompromising and unwilling to give the audience any concrete information or explanations about what’s happening. He steadily builds the tension until everything reaches it’s boiling point — and then he turns up the heat even more.
Just like in MARTYRS, Laugier has something important to say in THE TALL MAN, and the message is both subtle and a smack in the face. Laugier examines the cyclical nature of the lower classes who are both kept down by their own limitations and by an uncaring bureaucracy that is ill-equipped to help them and therefore contributes to the suffering and creates new generations of suffering people. And who suffers the most? The children. I think it’s safe to say that Laugier has successfully made the first “sociological horror-thriller” ever. Seriously!!
THE TALL MAN won’t be for everyone and it’s definitely a film that greatly benefits from a second and third viewing. But if you loved MARTYRS and like the films of Fabrice Du Welz, then I think you’re really going to enjoy THE TALL MAN. This is another one of those slow-burning ‘grenade’ films that “goes off” a few hours or days after you’ve seen it. And once you have your “I get it” moment you’ll see the brilliance that is Laugier and THE TALL MAN. Don’t miss this one.
Director: Pascal Laugier (& writer)
Plot: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer