Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Problem with Pascal Laugier's THE TALL MAN

This isn't so much a review as it is an addendum to lots of other reviews I've read. For fear of spoilers, many people seem reluctant to give away the shocking secret of The Tall Man, but in my opinion the ending is worth talking about more than anything else.

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.

Whoa, wait.

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.
Without first establishing this town of straw men, Laugier's whole premise falls apart. He's essentially posing the question: "Is kidnapping okay?" and the answer is, supposed to be "well, in this awful fictional town, maybe." In the real world, the answer is unequivocally "no."

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!"
This is a real shame, because if you can ignore the awful stereotypes you've got a very suspenseful and nicely crafted film. I have a new respect for Biel as an actress after this, and was glad to see Jodelle Ferland (more commonly known as the girl from Silent Hill) deliver a convincing performance as well. Laguier has an eye for creating really foreboding sets and an extremely tense atmosphere, and he's in full form here.

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!


  1. I still need to watch this movie! I've been hearing mix reviews about it.

    Welcome to Horror Blogger Alliance, by the way!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I'd still recommend checking it out. I was having a great time with it until the big reveal. I'm curious to see where Laugier goes from here.

  2. I put off watching this for a while due to a bad review but I check it out anyway. It took me awhile to settle on my feelings for it. I got her whole thing with getting the kids out of the town for their own good but I was annoyed how it flowed in the movie. When the "twist" came I was confused and the confusion went on way too long before it was clarified. Also, this is just me being me, but dude wasn't even that tall! Haha.

    1. When the twist came I immediately thought, "If she did kidnap the kids, please let it be because the husband is still alive and they were secretly getting the kids out of town to give them to loving families in an attempt to save them because they think the foster care system and family court are deeply flawed." I was dreading the end revealing it was about something else and glad I turned out to be right.

  3. Caught it on netflix instant watch not long ago. Not a bad premise and it had its good moments but overall I agree with you. I was annoyed by the one dimensional characters and speaking as someone who grew up in extreme poverty I know for certain that being handed over to rich, "educated" caregivers solves absolutely nothing. (Not to toss real life into this movie's silly attempt at a message...) Overall I was rather disappointed. It was marketed as a horror film and didn't deliver.

    1. Nicole, thanks for reading and commenting! What bugged me the most about this film was that I think it wants you to apply it to real life. The message just rang totally false in the end though. Really, a shame after how much I enjoyed Martyrs, but we'll just have to wait and see where Pascal Laugier goes next...

  4. I thought the movie was very true to life. I've known a lot of people like the ones in that town. I don't think poverty was really the problem. It was that they weren't the kinds of parents that save every penny so their kid can have a better life, nurture their kid's dreams. Instead they were holding the kids down, teaching them to be victims, that nothing would ever change, that drugs and drinking binges and domestic violence were things to get used to. That's the cycle that wouldn't stop. That negativity and acceptance of one's lowly place in the world. They teach their kids to expect nothing and their kids grow up and teach their kids that and it continues so that there are generations of families with chips on their shoulders and bitterness in their souls. Not all poor people are as great a parent as the father from The pursuit of happiness.

    I don't think that the couple were giving the kids to just any rich people that wanted kids. They probably vetted them first. And yes, money can solve a lot. Not everything. But speaking as someone that grew up lower middle class, money would've meant less stress, not being on government assistance, not seeing the living room furniture sold for food, mom's wedding ring pawned to pay bills, hospital bills that would never get paid, hoping to get hit by a car so you can sue, mold on the walls, etc.