Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tall Man

THE TALL MAN (Pascal Laugier, 2012)

Recent years have not treated the mining town of Cold Rock, Washington well in THE TALL MAN.  The area is economically devastated, but the frequent, unsolved disappearances of the town’s children deliver the most significant blows to civic morale. With town and federal law enforcement no closer to solving the mysteries, local legend pins the abductions on The Tall Man, a shadowy presence who emerges from the forest to take the kids.  

By continuing to run the community clinic her husband once oversaw, widow and single mother Julia Denning (Jessica Biel) tries to do all she can for the townsfolk.  She is concerned for the welfare of Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), a mute teen whose sister was impregnated by her mom’s boyfriend, and makes the extra effort to extend kindness to one missing child’s distraught mother.

One night the racket of a radio preacher spouting hellfire and brimstone awakens Julia. Downstairs she discovers that the live-in babysitter Christine (Eve Harlow) has been beaten and tied up.  Then she realizes that her son David (Jakob Davies) is missing. She makes a valiant attempt to chase down the hooded figure in a long coat but is ultimately unable to retrieve her son and passes out in the middle of the road.
THE TALL MAN comes as close as anything in recent years at matching the better monster-of-the-week episodes of THE X-FILES, although here the mystery is approached from the inside rather than through a federal investigation.  (The connection to THE X-FILES also comes, perhaps incidentally, with the series’ Cigarette Smoking Man, William B. Davis, playing a sheriff.)  The secluded Pacific Northwest location and periodic child narration enhance the film’s fable-like tone as a regional cautionary tale. The authority of legend weighs heavily whether humans or supernatural forces are responsible for the missing kids.

Approximately the first half of THE TALL MAN plays out as a conventional suspense film, but writer-director Pascal Laugier has a couple tricks up his sleeves that transform the otherwise familiar notes into something surprising and provocative.  Genre gives Laugier the freedom to delve into a perspective on child welfare that a social issue drama would likely never dare to consider with any seriousness.  Naturally, the example provided herein is taken to an extreme, but the go-for-broke philosophical determination and ambiguous stance on what transpires make for a potent conclusion.

While THE TALL MAN’s success can be attributed to the execution of its twists and subversive core idea, Biel’s performance as a loving and fiercely protective mother amplifies the power of the narrative turns.  Feeling the depth of her character’s sacrifice is the difference between sustained dread and a jump scare.  Both tactics accomplish the task, but the former is more satisfying in the long run.

Grade: B

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