The Tall Man (Pascal Laugier, 2012)
The first thing to know about The Tall Man, the third feature from French wunderkind Pascal Laugier, is that unlike his first two films, it is not in any way a horror movie. I was as shocked by this as everyone else seems to have been, but then upon reflection it’s not outside the realm of the probable; Laugier’s first two features, while both superlative, were about as diametrically opposed as it’s possible to be and still both be horror films (Saint Ange is a stylish, lushly-shot haunted-asylum picture, while Martyrs is a claustrophobic torture porn film with a studied absence of atmosphere). Unfortunately, it has been marketed as such, probably to cash in on Laugier’s name, so a lot of people have been a lot more disappointed in this than they should have been had it been marketed as the mystery/thriller that it is. That said, it’s not up to par with Laugier’s earlier movies, but that’s a relative thing; it’s still better than at least 85% of what you will see this year. Laugier, after all, set his own bar very, very high over the past decade.
Plot: Julia Denning (Blade: Trinity‘s Jessica Biel) runs a free clinic in the economically devastated mining town of Cold Rock, Washington. She lives in a big, rambling house with her son David (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules‘ Jakob Davies); her husband, as pretty much everyone who comes into contact with her during the opening half of the film lets us know, died at some point in the past, and the townsfolk are still measuring her up, not sure she can fill the shoes left by her husband—the town doctor. That’s just one small drama in a town that has an overarching problem—the Tall Man, an urban legend-style figure who has abducted dozens of children and who supposedly lives in the abandoned mines.
And that’s all the more I can tell you, because exactly halfway through this movie, you are likely to shout “LAUGIER, YOU BASTARD!” at the screen and throw popcorn. Which, I rush to add, is in no way a bad thing, especially because the Big Reveal(TM) is then followed by the next ten or twenty minutes making you question whether you actually heard what you thought you heard, or whether the character who said it was simply trying to humor a psychopath, or… what. And even once that question is resolved, well, there are a lot more layers to this onion.
All of this is not to say the movie doesn’t have its flaws, though they are minor, if really annoying; this was Laugier’s first picture solely in English, and there are some places where it would have been a great idea for Laugier (who also wrote the script) to hire a consultant equally fluent in French and English to help with the translation; there are places where the language simply doesn’t flow in the way it does in his earlier pictures (and language is a very important part of all of them). Especially in the first montage—but I’m getting ahead of myself (though not far).
We’re getting well out of review territory here, but lemme tell you: if you’re going to “get” this movie, at least in the sense of Laugier’s filmic language, I will (briefly) break down the first four sequences for you, because they encapsulate everything I love about this guy and this movie.
The first scene doesn’t require any trickery. You put Stephen McHattie and William B. Davis on the screen together and I’m amazed cinemas don’t implode with that much talent in that small a space.
Then comes the second sequence, where we’re introduced to both Jessica Biel’s character and that of her sidekick/wannabe pal Jenny (Jodelle Ferland from the Twilight franchise). Jenny’s sister is being rushed to the free clinic because she’s in labor, and there’s all sorts of small-town drama surrounding that that we get into that does a pretty good job of setting up the town itself, but that’s secondary here. The baby is born not breathing, and Jenny and her mother wheel the confused new mother out of the delivery room (which is actually a classroom in an old schoolhouse, and how’s that for the small things?). The door closes and we see the rest of the scene through that frosted glass that was in your principal’s window. Which, in the language of film, is the same as “let’s show the naked chick taking a shower, but without actually giving the audience what they’re really looking for.” It’s a tease, but here it’s applied to Julia Denning attempting to save the life of a newborn baby. Now, pause for a moment and think about the way this scene is set up—Laugier, very deliberately, has taken a setting that screams “this is cheesecake” and given it life-or-death implications. As well, when it’s a naked-girl-in-the-shower picture, unless it’s one that’s going to come equipped with a soundtrack heavy on the wah-wah pedal, the only sound you hear is…the shower (and maybe the killer’s knife clicking against the tiles). Here, you’ve got Julia begging this baby to breathe, and for the love of pete. It’s one of the best-constructed sequences I can remember seeing in a movie in recent memory.
Third sequence is the first half of the main title. It’s inventive but nothing we haven’t seen before (Laugier borrowed a bit from the way Fringe does place names, but of course put his own spin on it).
Fourth is how we get introduced to the Tall Man urban legend—through a montage of news footage. Seriously, I can hear you groaning through the screen, but bear with me here. First off is the attention to detail—there’s that “small things” argument again (and if I kept doing this, you’d hear it a lot). Melodrama directors will attempt something like this and then fade it into some godawful tear-jerking sequence of a fake-sympathetic new reporter nodding and looking sage while interviewing the latest victim’s parents. Which saves on budget because you’re no longer having artists create fake news graphics, you can stop casting all those extras, etc. But no—Laugier takes that sequence out to its logical conclusion, and it’s masterful. I’m even willing to forgive him the whole “kids vanishing in a puff of smoke” trope, which he takes far too literally here (it’s repeated later in the film to much, much greater effect, which also gets him a pass).
If you look at scenes like that and say “hey, this is a director who knows what he’s doing,” I can guarantee you a good time with this flick, as long as you remember that this is not the horror movie the trailers tried to sell you. It is something very different, and it is the better for that. *** ½