Frenchman Pascal Laugier, the writer/director of 2008’s gruesome revenge thriller “Martyrs”, turns his attention to the American Pacific Northwest in his latest outing, “The Tall Man”, his first film since bursting onto the scene four years ago. “The Tall Man”, opening later this Friday in limited release, is a cold, calculating, and terribly depressing film that takes place in what must be the shittiest town in all of cinemaland. The former coal town of Cold Rock is populated by the saddest group of people you’ll ever meet at the movies, a combination of hillbilly, redneck, and Appalachian mountain folk archetypes all rolled up into one ball of wax. Everyone is out of work, sleeping with their girlfriend’s kids, and parents are hopeless failures. To make the already miserable existence of the population of Cold Rock more hell-like, someone, or some thing is going around town nabbing their kids. Talk about adding insult to injury!
There is one bright spot in Cold Rock, though. Jessica Biel plays Julia, a young doctor and single mom who does her best to keep the memory of her husband (beloved by the townfolks, everyone keeps reminding her) alive by continuing his good work. She’s got her hands full given the redneck/hillbilly/Appalachian inclinations of her neighbors, but she plugs right along with verve and patience. (Biel ditches her Hollywood glamor girl good looks for a purposefully plain appearance in this one. Or at least, as “plain” as Jessica Biel could possibly look, which is, well, not all that plain.) When The Tall Man comes for Julia’s son, oh boy, is the sucker gonna have a fight on his hands.
If you think you know where “The Tall Man” is going, you’re sadly mistaken. Laugier, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t even wait until the Third Act to throw in the film’s major twist. In fact, that comes halfway through, sending the entire film spinning in an entirely new direction. I have to admit, having been weaned on so many stabs at last-minute twists by filmmakers looking for a cheap but memorable “Gotcha” as their film heads toward the exit, getting slapped with it about halfway through, just as the film is really cranking up, threw me for a major loop. This results in the second half of “The Tall Man” looking nothing like the first, as Julia finds herself not only up against The Tall Man, but more enemies than she had previously thought. Or is she?
The star of “The Tall Man” is without a doubt Jessica Biel. Really, I didn’t know she had this in her, but Biel is phenomenal. Watching her give chase after The Tall Man, battling a bigger and stronger enemy (and his dog, natch) with such dogged (no pun intended) determination and wanton disregard for her own safety is downright inspiration. Jodelle Ferland co-stars as Jenny, a young teenage girl from one of the town’s many dysfunctional families, who pops up intermittently to provide voiceover exposition. Jenny feels tacked on, and if I had to guess, she was added because Laugier realized he needed to explain too much. Stephen McHattie plays a crusading Detective, while “The X-Files” vet William B. Davis is the local bumbling Sheriff. They’re both mostly background character, and really don’t figure all that much into the movie.
As mentioned, the big twist hits around the halfway mark, but if you think that’s all there is, you’re dead wrong. There’s another twist — and even another one at the end of that one. Laugier obviously went into this with a very ambitious agenda. Maybe it’s his French background, but a lot of the social issues he brings up feels, well, half-assed. To get into it too much would spoil some of the film’s agenda, but suffice to say, while Laugier’s ideas are laudable, the conclusions he draws are highly debatable. It doesn’t help that he has to make some questionable plotting choices in order to get there. (The Christine character (played by Eve Harlow) is so poorly handled as to be indecipherable.) One other thing to keep in mind is that “The Tall Man” is not “Martyrs” — once Julia’s initial, bloody battle with The Tall Man concludes (which is around, again, the halfway mark), the film switches major gears and becomes a rather action-free crime procedural.
“The Tall Man” is full of surprises, for good or ill. The first hour gives the impression of being a straight horror movie, but the second half is essentially a series of revelations that all lead to an “important point” Laugier wants to make. In that respect, “The Tall Man” isn’t really a horror movie, though it certainly wraps itself in the conventions of the genre, especially in the early goings. The film boasts a very strong turn by Jessica Biel, who does tremendous work here and hats off to her for fully committing to the role. The rest of the film? Eh. It started off really good, and you keep expecting something good to happen once the first twist hits, but it never gets there. And oh, if you thought “The Tall Man” was the beginning of a horror franchise (as I did when I first heard and reported on it), it’s not. This is a one-and-doner unless someone manages to get real creative for a sequel.
Pascal Laugier (director) / Pascal Laugier (screenplay)
CAST: Jessica Biel … Julia Denning
Jodelle Ferland … Jenny
Stephen McHattie … Lieutenant Dodd
William B. Davis … Sheriff Chestnut
Samantha Ferris … Tracy
Colleen Wheeler … Mrs. Johnson
Eve Harlow … Christine
Janet Wright … Trish