The Tall Man

The Tall Man

**1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

The wave of extreme horror pouring almost arterially out of France for the past decade arguably peaked with Pascal Laugier’s repeated gut-punch Martyrs, which married torture-porn aesthetics and clichés to genuine substance, benefiting hugely from outstandingly emotive lead performances. The Tall Man operates in a different vein – it’s more like a M Night Shyamalan mystery than the spook-fest it’s tempting to expect, especially given the misleading marketing – but it shares many of the same concerns as Martyrs and Laugier’s visual style is immediately recognisable in several impressive sequences.

Unfortunately, it’s closer in effect to his underwhelming supernatural/psychological debut Saint Ange (House Of Voices). Both suffer from muddled messages, inconsistent acting, incoherent plotting as well as bland, excessive lighting and scores that scupper any atmosphere Laugier occasionally manages to build. His ambition remains commendable, but his execution is questionable, leading to a frustrating if occasionally intriguing experience.

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Cold Rock is becoming a ghost town, left in financial ruin from the closure of its mines, which had been the sole industry for generations. A darker cloud looms over the remote area though, with the impoverished community’s children regularly going missing, their disappearance often attributed to the local legend of ‘the tall man’. A young widowed nurse finds her life thrown into turmoil when her child is snatched, leading to revelations that hint at a larger conspiracy.

All of Laugier's films have featured strong female protagonists, but for his proper English language debut (Saint Ange was filmed in French and English) Laugier is especially well-served by Jessica Biel (also an executive producer), effectively toning down her natural beauty and digging deep for a demanding role that can only really be fully appreciated in retrospect. She’s particularly strong in the second half, when Laugier starts stripping away the layers of his narrative to get to its provocative core.

It’s a shame the supporting players aren’t quite up to scratch, although this could perhaps be down to the flip-flopping stances the story takes, as well as Laugier’s inexperience with non-French-speaking actors. Stephen McHattie’s detective brings an unsettling air of The X-Files to his role but is otherwise wasted, and young Jodelle Ferland – already something of a horror starlet thanks to the likes of Silent Hill – does well with an under-written deaf-mute character, who only develops beyond horror convention in the final 15 minutes. The rest of the cast, however, have a TV-movie quality that dampens the drama, while Biel takes a back-seat for the final third, leaving the would-be thought-provoking final stretch feeling unfocused.

Laugier mounts a couple of reasonably intense set-pieces early on, but these often hinge on the ridiculous, and are let down by shoddy effects work. As the tone shifts from thrills to drama, he also pulls off some excellent extended shots, peppered with well-orchestrated jolts, showing both appropriate restraint and imaginative use of objective camerawork. His handling of his script’s elliptical structure is less assured, with all the sleight of hand feeling like a cheap gimmick to distract from the lack of actual momentum that might have kept viewers on the edge of their seats rather than at the end of their tether.

While his attempts at mature commentary, lingering ambiguity and emotional resonance mark Laugier out as sincere, The Tall Man is ultimately let down by its silly twists and refusal to play straight by and with its audience. He takes care not to align himself with the beliefs of any one protagonist – they’re all revealed to be flawed human beings – but he’s guilty of a potentially offensive thread of moral posturing that will make or break this film for most viewers, with its less balanced take on some of the same ground as Gone Baby Gone. Laugier could never have outdone Martyrs so it’s to his credit that he’s gone in a completely different direction that still bears thematic comparison to his earlier work, but hopefully his next project will prove that 2008 masterpiece wasn’t a fluke.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2013
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A mother tries to unravel a legend of a child abductor after her child goes missing.
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