I can’t recall ever seeing a movie as unpredictable as Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man, which, despite its title, has nothing to do with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series. Most horror thrillers these days rely on either a rigid formula (think 2011’s Final Destination 5) or a single twist at the end (as in 2003’s High Tension). This one redefines its narrative every twenty minutes or so, switching perspectives, protagonists, and even genres all the while remaining cohesive and single-minded in its message. Even the final reversal caught me off guard, not by reinterpreting established events but by asking us to reassess what we got from them.
The film opens on a dilapidated American town where, owing to a closed mine, jobs have become sparse, poverty a given, and alcohol a way of life. One by one, the children of Cold Rock are going missing, taken, some believe, by the mythical Tall Man. We meet Julia (Jessica Biel), a widowed nurse who runs a free clinic. She demonstrates herself a loving parent to five-year-old David (Jakob Davies), making her distress all the more visceral when a hooded figure comes into her home to kidnap him.
The next half hour follows Julia’s hot pursuit, and the chase proves worthy of any balls-to-the-wall horror flick as she dodges furniture inside her home, hangs on to an armoured truck speeding through the night, fends off a dog, falls prey to swamp pits in the woods, and outwits the kidnaper’s co-conspirators at a diner. Barely a word is spoken, but Jessica Biel holds our interest throughout with her natural intensity. I wish she’d get more roles like this. Rarely have I seen a thriller with such a believably smart protagonist.
Then The Tall Man switches gears in a way I dare not spoil, except to confirm that Julia doesn’t turn out to have imagined the whole thing and that the story delivers plenty more turns in its second and third acts. It’s refreshing to find a movie that takes the time to explore the implications of its shocking reveals instead of rolling the credits as we ponder their plausibility. I should however mention that I’d figured out the identity and modus operandi of the titular villain early on, not that this tempered my enjoyment in any way.
In fact, one could argue a viewer’s ability to figure out the solutions to some but not all of the movie’s puzzles serves as comforting evidence that the filmmakers did not cheat. More to the point, The Tall Man doesn’t hinge on its central enigma. Rather, Laugier uses mystery and misdirection to provide a context in which the narrative can shift between different points of view (the kidnaper’s, the parent’s, the state’s, and the child’s) and explore conflicting motivations along with their consequences.
That’s the point, you see, to shed new light on an all too common tragedy we’ve come to take for granted or, worse, endorse. Portraits of Julia and her late husband allude to a link between the plight of Cold Rock and similar occurrences in developing countries, but Laugier doesn’t content himself with a vague, generic metaphor. He invites us to view a complex issue from new sets of eyes and reconsider our definitions of compassion and altruism. As such, The Tall Man functions not as a condemnation but as a cry for deeper understanding.
Laugier’s thoughtfulness may be the film’s greatest surprise. I struggled through the third act, unsure whether I could get behind its thesis. Imagine my shock and relief when it turned out my ambivalence was expected, devised even. Consider the character of Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), an abused teen who figures out the conspiracy on her own and decides she’d rather be taken by the Tall Man than suffer in Cold Rock. She provides the narration for this haunting tale along with its final, devastating line. I always cringe when people tell me that a movie made them think. After all, thought ought to play an integral part in our every action. I will state, however, that The Tall Man made me question.