[Note: The Tall Man opens in limited release today, and opens wider on September 7th.]
Pascal Lugier’s The Tall Man is one of those films that’s really frustrating to discuss, as it contains so many surprises and plot twists, that one can only really describe the first third of the film openly without giving anything away. I will make some implications in this review, but I will try to remain far afield of any actual spoilers. I can say for sure that The Tall Man is a spooky and atmospheric little thriller that contains some actual and unexpected surprises, which is rare for a thriller. It also manages to take its spooky ghost story premise, and turn it into something else entirely, ultimately turning the film into a social comment on wealth. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jessica Biel, once again eschewing her model good looks, plays Julia Denning, a widow living in a small Washington town called Cold Rock (and they’re always shiver-inducing two-word towns in these kinds of movies, aren’t they?) that has been ravaged by the economy. Cold Rock only has a few people remaining, and seems to be getting consumed by the encroaching woods. The death of a small town would, you would think, be bigger news, but this town is getting no tourism injection. It’s a trucker town that is doomed to collapse. Even more notable is the recent plague of child disappearances, which should indeed attract policemen and news crews, but seem to go unnoticed. Perhaps that’s a further comment on the poverty of the town. Julia is the town’s only medical professional (she’s a nurse), and seems to be the only person who cares that the children are disappearing.
Rumors are circulating that the children are being kidnapped by "The Tall Man," a local legend about a fellow who may be a woods-dwelling madman, or may be a ghostly supernatural creature. And why is everyone treating Julia so strangely? And what is the deal with that crazy woman? The cops (represented by Stephen McHattie) aren’t very helpful. The only one who seems to know what’s going on is the mute teenager Jenny (Jodelle Ferland) who, in what may be considered a cliché, only communicates through spooky, Gothy drawings she etches in her notebook.
And that’s all I can really describe. But Julia’s role in all this is indeed eventually revealed to be more complex than we thought, and we do eventually learn what happened to the children, but it’s not going to be anything you predict. Poverty, though, does play into it in a way. Do you suppose The Tall Man is an Occupy film? A ghost story about class? A supernatural thriller about the ripples of corporate greed?
I did appreciate The Tall Man’s social comment, and it was plenty spooky. There’s a pretty amazing scene about halfway through wherein Biel hangs onto the back of a bad guy’s truck, which is tense and chilling. Biel is perfectly fine as the put-upon mother. Okay, I openly admit that it feels ridiculous for long stretches, and that the climax may seem like an anticlimax for many. Indeed, by the time we learn the real secret, I predict many audiences will feel let down by its lack of flash. I think that’s what The Tall Man may be missing the most; spectacle. I understand that it ultimately isn’t going to be about its thrills, and will focus more on its point, but people wanting a sound-and-light spectacular will be disappointed.