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‘The Tall Man’ Review

Jessica Biel in 'The Tall Man'
Minds Eye Entertainment

Pascal Laugier hasn’t made a film since 2006, when he unleashed the soul-crushing yet thought-provoking exercise in nihilism known as ‘Martyrs.’ He returns to us in 2012 with his second film and first English language feature, ‘The Tall Man,’ co-produced by and starring Jessica Biel.

Black Rock is a decaying, dusty pit of a town that was once thriving thanks to a healthy mining community. The mines shut down and the town began to decline as people lost hope and resigned themselves to their despair. But there’s something even more disturbing than general poverty and malaise – the children of Black Rock keep vanishing without a trace, their disappearances explained away by some as a result of a local boogeyman they call the Tall Man.

When local nurse Julia’s (Biel) son goes missing, she sets out after his abductor to uncover the truth behind the myth and bring her son home. As the night wears on the tensions from the disenfranchised town inhabitants mount, and the legend wildly unravels.

‘The Tall Man’ begins as a familiar, starch-straight narrative, even utilizing familiar elements like a voiceover from a local mute teenager named Jenny (Jodelle Ferland, who can’t seem to stay away from these decrepit mining towns). The voiceover is immediately out of place and clashes with the expository opening that precedes it, which informs us through title cards that 800,000 children go missing each year, and that 1,000 of them disappear without a trace. These are all such recognizable hallmarks that one begins to think Laugier has been drinking too much of the old American Kool-Aid (read: cheap, mass-produced beer and preservative-laden orange cheese products); but just as ‘Martyrs’ began as a straight narrative before taking a sharp left turn and devolving into madness, Laugier dispenses with the generic tropes and throws ‘The Tall Man’ off the rails in act two.

Motivations are murky and unclear, the dialogue isn’t clunky and expository, and one gets the feeling that most of the characters know as little as the audience does. And it just keeps intensifying and cascading into something that feels truly unsettling from there. Laugier’s transitions are jarring, but more impressive is that he is seemingly unwilling to compromise with his audience by giving them too much information; he operates on a very egalitarian scale that recognizes his audience as intellectual equals, not underfed children who must be nourished by hand.

As violent as ‘Martyrs’ was, the narrative was ultimately bleak and served as a meditation on despair and the questions we often ask ourselves at the end of our rope – in this way, ‘Martyrs’ could definitely be described as “emotional horror”; ‘The Tall Man’, on the other hand, ruminates on the idea of a cycle that ceaselessly feeds on itself when the lower class are kept low by their own limitations and the refusal of a careless bureaucracy to help those in need; the children ultimately suffer, creating a new generation of hopeless people who will neglect their own children, and so on. And so ‘The Tall Man’ could best be described as sociological horror, as it exists as a relevant commentary on our society, but it also offers resolution in the form of a hazy moral compass that can certainly be questioned, but cannot be denied.

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