Essays · Movies

In Defense of Pascal Laugier’s ‘The Tall Man’

“Something had come to Cold Rock that was taking the children.”
The Tall Man
Image Entertainment
By  · Published on August 14th, 2017

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to, and this week we’re talking The Tall Man.

This week’s pick is one of the latter variety… a dark, “social thriller” that some of you bastards beat within an inch of its life when it was released back in 2012. The rest of you just ignored it completely.

The Tall Man opens with ominous, real-world facts before unfurling its story. Hundreds of thousands of kids are reported missing each year, we’re told, and while most are quickly found some are never seen again. With that we’re introduced to Julia (Jessica Biel), a woman who looks battered and bruised and who’s just lost her child. She immediately has our sympathy, and then we jump back 36 hours to see what led up to her son’s disappearance.

The rural mountain town of Cold Rock has seen far better days, but since the mine closed it’s been a slow descent towards death. The dwindling population faces increased unemployment, the local school has closed, and too many of those who remain have turned to the bottle for comfort. Worse, the community has suffered a rash of disappearances as nearly a dozen young children have gone missing in recent years. The rumors floating around town are of a “tall man” moving silently through the night to abduct the little ones for unknown purposes, and the legend is seemingly confirmed one night after Julia puts her son David to bed and settles in with a stiff drink. She awakes to find her nanny bloodied and bound and young David being carried into the night by a dark figure. Julia gives chase, but she loses him to the darkness.

This is the movie that people expected from the marketing and perhaps from the English-language debut of France’s Pascal Laugier‘s (Martyrs) — a straight forward horror thriller about a possibly supernatural being stealing children and making Jessica Biel cry. It would have been generic, but while it would have also been slickly-made the end result would have been another mostly unmemorable North American horror film.

That’s not the film that Laugier made though.

(Stop reading here if you’re spoiler-averse as this is more of an opinion piece than a straight review.)

As anyone who’s seen the brilliant and draining Martyrs knows, Laugier isn’t interested in cheap thrills and jump scares. His horrors are deep-seated, emotional, and designed to leave viewers shaken, scarred, and moved towards dialogue about what they’ve just witnessed. Like that earlier film, The Tall Man is a story of sacrifice and endurance for a belief held firmly by its protagonist, and it’s once again designed to encourage contemplation.

There is no tall man. The figure that abducts Julia’s son is actually the boy’s real mother… from whom Julia had abducted him first. The boy’s been kept hidden at the house as his real mother has gone slowly mad, but when Mrs. Johnson (Colleen Wheeler) sees him in Julia’s window she shares the discovery with some other locals and moves to take him back. A mob mentality begins to form including some parents of previously abducted children, but Julia dodges their grasp, recovers the boy, and delivers him to the “tall man” in the basement.

We don’t see the transfer. We just know the boy is gone, and as she’s taken into custody and interrogated she reveals that none of the kids will be coming back. They’re gone, dead, and spread throughout the forest. It seems Julia — nurse, widowed outsider, and a woman unable to bear children of her own — has been kidnapping kids, playing house for a while, and then killing them. Our sympathies have been misplaced. She’s no victim. She’s a murderer.

Except, that’s still not the story Laugier’s telling here.

Julia isn’t killing anyone — she’s part of an Underground Railroad-type organization with her very much alive husband, and her house in the woods is just the first stop before the children from homes uninterested or incapable of caring for them are shipped elsewhere to new lives and opportunities. The groundwork is evident throughout the film as we see disinterested parents and unwanted kids, abusive behavior, and a community that’s essentially given up on its own future to the detriment of their upcoming generations.

The system is broken, it doesn’t work. There’s no where to turn, no support. I’ve seen it all over the world, it’s just easier to give up. I’m not any better than you, Mrs. Johnson, I’ve just seen more. It’s not a matter of being a good person or being a bad person, it’s about how you cope. We’re so limited. But the eyes of every child are filled with potential and hope, and we need to embrace and nourish that potential. But we don’t, and we continue to make the same mistakes, and we continue to let the children grow up broken and lost, just like their parents.”

Obviously this is a fictional premise in the form of a thriller, but it’s based in real ethical questions and encourages conversations on topics typically far removed from the likes of genre films. What is society’s responsibility to our children? At what point does it supersede the authority of the family? Ideally communities — towns, cities, other countries — will better themselves for the betterment of the young, but as Julia says above, “the system is broken.” Cycles of poverty, abuse, and missed opportunity are all around us with no sign of improvement. If these “houses” can’t be fixed isn’t it worth moving children to ones in far, far better condition?

Julia essentially sacrifices herself for the cause — she allows herself to be the child-killing “monster” in the eyes of the world — so that the kids who’ve been “rescued” will continue to have a chance. The argument is sound as no one would disagree that children should be cared for and given opportunity rather than neglected and left to shuffle the same rut as their parents before them. Poverty is the root cause along with a system that enables defeat rather than escape, and that raises questions regarding class responsibility.

It’s a gut punch of sorts as the pieces fall into place with an epilogue narrated by a teenager, Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), whose own abusive household led to a desire to be taken by the tall man. We see the process as she’s snatched in the night, driven far away, and handed off to a woman of means. Months pass, and she’s in a stable, loving home, attending school and gaining an education, and encouraged to explore the bustling city at her fingertips. She loves her birth mother, her “second” mother (Julia), and her new mother, but while this life is what she both wanted and needed, she still feels a daily pull to return home. She wonders aloud, asking herself and viewers both, whether or not this relocation was the right thing to do.

There are other reasons to like The Tall Man including the heavy onscreen presence of women in most of the major roles — seven of the first ten cast members listed are female — and while all do strong work much of the film’s weight is carried on Biel’s capable shoulders. It’s as far from glamorous and sexy as it is from Oscar bait material, but she’s absolutely terrific as a woman who shifts from victim to killer to martyr in under two hours. We buy into each stage because she does, and we’re left affected and heartbroken on the strength of her performance and Laugier’s smartly-crafted script. Add in some strong visuals, a thrilling action sequence, and the presence of Stephen McHattie and William B. Davis, and you have a film that deserved a better fate.

The Tall Man is not the horror thriller that it starts out as and instead becomes something far more unexpected and affecting. That’s a good thing.

Follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.