Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tall Man

Tall Man (2011)
Dir. Pascal Laugier
Written by: Pascal Laugier
Starring Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, William B. Davis, twists

I know, pretty weak poster, right? You call that guy tall? He's got maybe three inches on Jessica Biel, who according to the internet is 5' 8." Slightly taller than average, but it's not like he's gonna be fucking trying out for the Lakers. Or even the Wizards. This is that whole "Candyman" thing all over again. What, the guy's got bees in his mouth and a hook hand but the thing that seems important to you is that he's got a couple fun sized snickers bars sitting around his pad? Same thing here. Mystery black-cowled indestructible child-kidnapper, and the thing that stands out to you is that he's got two inches on Jessica Biel? Why not just call him "cowl man" or something? OK maybe you have a point. Still though, I think we can do better. I'm gonna give this one to Laugier on account of English being his second language, but let's try a little harder next time, Frenchie.
     So, It turns out I’m the only serious horror fan left on Earth who hasn’t seen MARTYRS. I know, I know, shut up, I know. I’ve been saving it all year (along with RETRIBUTION and HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) to watch this month, but I know pretty much everyone and their uncle Boonmee understands that this turkey is the best horror movie of the last decade, a seminal turning point in horror cinema, a game-changer, etc. I know from reading about it that it’s famous for changing directions a bunch of times and throwing viewers off the trail.

    But guess what, that doesn’t sound so great to me. “Suddenly changing directions” sounds suspiciously like post-modern genre games to me, and frankly, I’ve had it with that. I liked CABIN IN THE WOODS and all, but that was a comedy. Do I really want my horror movies getting all meta-conscious and reminding me that there’s a formula for this type of thing which they’re going to consistently break? I’m sure I’ll like it when I see it, but on paper that sounds tiresome and gimmicky. So I wasn’t necessarily a sure sell on this, director Pascal Laugeir’s follow-up to his wildly successful breakthrough MARTYRS and first American-language film and starring Jessica Biel (who must have believed in this thing, because she also executive produced it), which lets face it, is not exactly a recipe for the best horror movie ever.

OK, now the poster is better but the name is worse. Those kids aren't gonna make it back just by visualizing success, despite what Oprah may tell you. At least they can use this image for the Criterion version in a few years.

But, sometimes John Boorman, Ennio Morricone, Max Von Sydow, and James Earl Jones can make a horrible disaster out of a sure thing, and sometimes some smarmy postmodernist Frenchman can make an English-language film with Jessica Biel and it’s one of the best God damn films you’ve seen in awhile, of any genre. It doesn’t happen often, but TALL MAN proves scientifically that it can indeed happen and that when it does, it’s fucking sweet. Heck, they tell you right at the beginning you’re in for a treat with the badass title sequence, where we see the names of the cast laid out across the barren landscape from the air as if they’re part of the scenery. Best credit sequence I’ve seen since INSIDIOUS, and maybe since PANIC ROOM. A credit sequence that bold is the portent of good things to come. Fact.

After the credits, TALL MAN focuses on the isolated, poverty-ridden, depressing ex-mining community in rural Washington State which has a little problem with its local children going missing courtesy-- as rumor would has it-- of the titular mystery Tall Man (it’s so bleak up there that their sheriff is William B. Davis, ie. Smoking Man from X-Files. When you hire that guy as your law enforcement, you know times are hard). Jessica Biel plays a beloved town physician who gets involved with the Tall Man story when her own son is kidnapped in the night by a mysterious cowled stranger. Only, things are not quite as simple as they appear. 

Man, both of these are better than the one they went with. Where are those Enfants?

I’ll leave it at that, because it turns out that TALL MAN, like MARTYRS, is a movie of sudden twists and abrupt tonal changes which amount to a movie constantly mutating away from what you’re expecting into something wholly strange and unexpected. I was worried that this approach would seem gimmicky and superficial, but here, anyway, the opposite is true. It makes the whole thing feel like it’s evolving organically, forcing you to actively reprocess your assumptions about everything that came before. I guess it made a lot of people mad because it doesn’t follow the standard horror tropes; I can see maybe feeling unfairly manipulated by the way the story withholds key information, but on the other hand, I don’t think there’s a better way to tell this particular story and get the same evolution of understanding out of the viewer. So if you’re prepared to go where TALL MAN takes you, expect a pretty wild ride. If not, it’s gonna lose you almost immediately and you’re just going to get angry and vote for Romney. So be warned.

It’s tempting to see this movie as a cleverly made puzzle box, a more kinetic version of the kind of twist-focused thrillers that M. Night Shyamalan used to make before he went insane and started to become an absurd parody of himself. It does have a little of that, and in fact even threatens to wander into THE VILLAGE territory towards the end, when it tries to sneak in one last scare after already telling you what’s really going on. But Laugier, it turns out, is a better, more versatile, and more stylish filmmaker than Shyamalan ever was, and it’s his astonishing command of cinematic language that gives this one the power to push through its weaker elements and go on to win you over. 

It's a damn good thing this kid is adorable and our relationship idyllic.

A true showpiece for the film is a sequence where an exhausted, delirious Biel (who’s phenomenal, by the way, carrying the film in a way I never dreamed she’d be able to) returns to her house and wanders up to her bed in one long, fixed-perspective shot -- only to suddenly cut to the next morning, when she has to head back down the stairs in another long take under decidedly different circumstances. The subtle ways in which Laugier draws both comparison and contrast between the ascent and descent is nothing short of remarkable, and yet you’re so deeply engrossed in the story by that point that you almost don’t notice. But even when he’s not showing off, Laugier demonstrates a very keen understanding of the way to shoot different types of horror. As the scenario slowly evolves, you’ll see the camerawork and editing subtly change to reflect the film’s new reality. It’s so seamless that you’d hardly even notice it, except that by the end you can hardly believe they tried so many different kinds of things and they all mostly worked.

What, you thought I was gonna be able to review TALL MAN without including at least one picture of this guy?

On my initial viewing, I have to admit that I was kind of bummed out by the end, which hews towards drama and away from the kind of straight horror the premise implies. It’s a fascinating ending, which begs some serious moral questions and dares the audience to try and answer them... but when I have a Chainsawnukah festival, I don’t want weeping mothers talking about good parenting, I want some fucking Tall Man goddammit. But then after I spent a restless night tossing and turning over the ending of the movie, I realized that I was wrong, it is horror after all, just a very different kind of horror than I’m used to. It’s kind of a moral ambiguity horror, a horror for the conscience as it wrestles with the reasons it has for sympathizing with people it probably has no business sympathizing with. Or does it? Most of the scares in the films I’ve watched this month are transient, but this one stuck with me. It’s not frightening, but it may be the most horrific thing I’ve seen yet. 

PS: Don't forget to check out my boy Dan P's alternate take!

O.G. Ballin' -- Don Coscarelli solved this shit years ago.


BOOBIES: No, despite the mostly-female cast.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Biel gets pretty beat up, but no gore.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Not much of a theatrical release, but Horror fans should know it.
CURSES: Just the curse of endless, grinding poverty.
A rare easy one. Most of the main characters here are women! Almost reminds me of SILENT HILL, which makes a kind of sense since it turns out that Laugier was an AD for Christopher Gans on his first two films.


  1. "The Secret" is not a good name for the movie, but it's a lot more appropriate than "The Tall Man." That title is a real red herring, setting expectations for the film that it doesn't deliver on. In fact the name might be partly responsible for why so many people don't seem to dig this one.

    I think a more ambiguous title, one that suggests at the other layers of the film without giving anything away, would be better. Something like "The Vanishing," only not that because it's already taken.

  2. Or if the movie gave an eponymous name to the villain (lamely, but for the sake of argument, let's say "the boogeyman") that, in retrospect, could've been applied equally to the urban legend supposedly taking the children, who we find to actually be the villain, or other people in the story who may or may not be villains in the childrens' lives depending on your own personal moral compass (hopefully that comment didn't contain any spoilers...I'm trying to be more aware of not writing those)