The Tall Man (2012)
While the movie the Tall Man seems to be a paranormal thriller about disappearing children in a small town, it’s actually a meditation on the best welfare for a child particularly in an economically depressed town. If it’s a horror film at all, it’s a film about the very real horror of the current depression and what it means, specifically, for working class families struggling with poverty.
The film opens in Cold Rock, a former mining town “that’s been dead for six years.” It’s filled with abandoned boarded up buildings, rusty defunct cars, and the occasional stray dog. On top of the horror of trying to cope with abject poverty, the residents of Cold Rock wrestle with a second, more horrifying curse: someone or something is abducting their children. The Tall Man, it seems, takes them, but it’s unclear if the Tall Man is real or simply a local legend invented to explain how someone could be heartless enough to steal so many young children from their families.
Julia Denning (Jessica Biel), a local nurse who survives her deceased doctor husband, attempts to care for the local population-delivering a baby in an abandoned school, supporting a young teenage girl with a speech impediment, offering a bereaved mother a cup of coffee. She seems to be the only hope for Cold Rock-attempting to hold onto what little good can still reside in such bleak circumstances.
The story unfolds when David, a young boy, is abducted, and Mrs. Denning proves to be more than an equal adversary to the abductor. In the process, more and more is revealed about the missing children and what happened to them. During the police investigation into David’s abduction, teenage Vera becomes the latest victim of the Tall Man as the authorities attempt to finally make sense of the mystery. Unlike the others who are taken unwillingly, Vera actually pursues The Tall Man, trying to find him.
Vera is the narrator of the story despite the fact that she either can’t or won’t speak owing to a speech impediment. The movie opens with her sister giving birth to a baby, a secret pregnancy she hid from her mother because she was sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend. After the delivery of the baby, Vera observes “In Cold Rock, sometimes babies were born when they were not wanted. People just managed…It may have been a bit sad, but it was just good sense.” However, the movie’s central question revolves around whether or not this is such good sense or not. The next day, her mother matter of factly deports the baby and her daughter to Seattle so that she can, arguably, go to a job interview rather than take care of the baby. In reality, the philandering boyfriend remains thus the motivation for the departure is clear. This is part of the “managing” that Vera refers to-and it indicates how desperate the people of Cold Rock really are, but also the predictably dismal life a baby born in these circumstances can expect.
Faced with such a depressing future-her mother’s abusive relationship with her boyfriend, the economic depression of the era, her sister’s unwanted pregnancy by the mother’s boyfriend-Vera attempts to flee her life by pursuing the Tall Man. As a result, she is presented with a choice. The film ends portraying the result of that choice with Vera asking the audience directly, “I guess it’s better this way. Right? Right? Right?” Literally demanding the audience answer what fate is better for the child.
Pascal Laugier, the writer director behind the brutal film Martyrs, is adept at not only building organic twists that not only surprise, but make sense after the reveal (an increasingly lost art), but also pushing the audience to ask itself difficult questions. Part of the horror of watching Laugier’s work is confronting one’s own answers to the sometimes obscenely violent and morally fraught questions he asks. In this way, the Tall Man is similar to the brutal psychological thriller Hard Candy in which a young woman systematically tortures a pedophile to confess his crime. While the idea of the film may seem appealing, the unrelentingly realistic portrayal of both characters makes it impossible to find one more redeeming than the other. Both torturer and pedophile are villainous. Still, the question remains if the greater good, no matter how difficult to face, isn’t served in Hard Candy as well as in the Tall Man. And there is where the true horror of both these films reside: that the answer may be “Yes.”
Part of what makes Laugier’s work compelling is his focus on female characters-not stereotypic final girl types, but a full range of female characters including the violently wounded, the empathically nurturing, the disinterestedly abusive, and the fanatically devoted amongst them. Laugier seems singularly focused on exploring the range of what female characters can do and, more often, withstand in his films. Beyond that, Laugier is also fascinated by the evil that sometimes must be perpetrated for a good outcome. Both Martyrs and the Tall Man explore that theme while driving home exactly how high a price is demanded for that outcome
Moviegoers looking for a standard supernatural thriller about disappearing children are sure to be disappointed. This is not a film to watch casually even though there is very little violence or gore. Viewers intrigued by a film that incorporates some traditional thriller elements used in order to pose a difficult moral question will hopefully be entertained by Laugier’s skill as well as his ability to create complex female characters.