Some background, just in case: The Tall Man is the third feature from French director/screenwriter Pascal Laugier, who generated lots of attention with his previous ultra-violent/psuedo-spiritual film Martyrs. I really enjoyed Martyrs myself, mostly because it genuinely shook me up and showed that Laugier was willing to subvert what horror fans wanted and expected in a film. I also really enjoyed his debut, Saint Ange (retitled to the forgettable House of Voices for the U.S.) which explored some of the same themes as Martyrs in an atmospheric gothic horror tale. If anything, with his first two films Laugier showed himself to be adept at evoking emotion and in possession of a keen eye for truly haunting and visually appealing scenes. He's one of the directors I always point to when I hear complaints about new horror having nothing to offer. (He's also the one person I think who really gets what a good Hellraiser revision would look like. It's a shame he was dropped from the project.)
So The Tall Man - essentially a boogeyman tale about an apparition kidnapping children from a rural town in the pacific northwest - seemed to mark a move away from extreme violence back toward something a little more subdued. As before, Laugier is willing to subvert expectations, although when the curtain is pulled back on this one, there's some really questionable stuff hiding behind it.
[Spoilers begin here. Also, some bitching.]
The existence of the film's mythical Tall Man is called into question within the first half-hour of the film. Jessica Biel plays a local nurse whose son has just been kidnapped, and she chases the kidnapper down to make the discovery that he appears to be human. Long story short - we're looking at things backwards. Biel is the one who's kidnapped the child, and he's just been taken back by his actual mother. This isn't the first kid Biel has snatched either. It turns out that she and her husband are the ones behind the whole Tall Man myth. Why is Biel kidnapping kids? To deliver them from the misery that they'll face in this poor rural town and give them a wonderful life in the big city.
Biel is stealing poor country kids and giving them to rich urban parents. Because there's no way they can have a fulfilling life in a small town. Note that she's not selling them - that would be wrong.
Now it suddenly makes sense why everyone in this town is portrayed as a dumb, grimy, hick.
- Early in the film, Biel assists a pregnant teenage girl by delivering her baby. The mother refuses medical care for the girl and the child, presumably because of her ignorance and distrust of those big city doctors.
- Said mother gets in a fight with her boyfriend (who incidentally was the one who fathered her daughter's child) and smacks him with a wrench after he assaults her other, younger daughter. The two laugh it off together, because you know, domestic violence is pretty funny.
- There's "no school" in this town. Which apparently means kids simply don't go to school. Shot after shot shows them running around the streets, lingering in junkyards, and sitting on dirty cars, all the while looking filthy and disheveled.
The suggestion that rich people are better suited to raising kids than poor people is absurd, but it's one this film asks us to, if not agree with, at least consider thoughtfully. Throwing an obnoxious one-dimensional idea like this out there as "controversy" doesn't make a film smart. Quite the opposite, in fact.
|"Come with me, kid, I know what's best for you!"|
I didn't intend to write anything about The Tall Man initially, but after reading review after review that praised the film for keeping the viewer guessing, I just felt like we needed a little balance. Using offensive caricatures to pose a stupid question might make a film interesting, and it certainly leads the plot in unexpected directions, but it doesn't make it smart. I don't like dwelling on things like this, but they really stand out when I watch a film, and inevitably color my opinion.
Laugier still has most of the respect I have for him as a filmmaker (although maybe not as a writer), and I hope this is just a small misfire. There's a voice-over sequence by Ferland's character at the end of the film that feels like a last-ditch attempt to soften the film's message. Biel was just doing what's best for the kids... they'll be happier this way... "Right? ... Right?"
Sorry - wrong.
The Tall Man is streaming on Netflix at the moment. If you've seen it and have an opinion, let me know whether you agree or if you just think I'm just overreacting. Also, Happy October!