How do you follow up the most notorious film of the entire New French Extremity canon? Many genre fans would argue that Pascal Laugier, who wrote and directed the blood-soaked Martyrs in 2008, suffered from a debilitating case of diminishing returns with his next film The Tall Man. It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2012 and promptly went nowhere, receiving a limited theatrical run in August of the same year and a home video release a few weeks later.
The Tall Man has not enjoyed a critical renaissance; it still retains only a 46% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 5.2 out of 10. (Oddly, this is not much different from Martyrs’ 53% fresh score, despite the film appearing on multiple listicles of the best horror movies of the new millennium.)
Although there are those who still consider the film a huge disappointment, The Tall Man actually traffics in the same themes as Martyrs, albeit with far less of its predecessor’s gory theatrics.
Like Martyrs, there is quite a bit of exposition before The Tall Man‘s opening credits. Viewers learn that the local authorities want to set up a police line. The film then introduces the main character, a bloodied and bruised woman named Julia Denning (Jessica Biel), who sits in a hospital room while a doctor pulls shards of glass out of her face. One of the detectives tells a clearly grief-stricken Denning that “we still haven’t found him.”
Next, viewers learn (from a voice over) that the town of Cold Rock “has been dead for six years,” that “something bad” had come there and that “something was taking the children.” A montage of news reports indicates that the residents believe this “something” is an entity they have named “The Tall Man.” What may seem to be an urban legend is an actual threat, as posters of missing children on a bulletin board prove.
When David, who appears to be Julia’s son, is kidnapped from his home in the middle of the night, it seems that he’s the latest victim of The Tall Man, especially when Julia sees a tall figure wearing dark clothes and a black hoodie running away from her house with the child in tow. She risks her life to save him but doesn’t succeed. Directer Laugier establishes a sense of sympathy through Biel’s Denning.
This focus on the plight of abducted children feels like a spiritual sister to the narrative of Martyrs, in which young women are kidnapped and tortured by a secret society so that its members might find spiritual enlightenment. Yet the issues in The Tall Man feel more earthbound. A teenage girl named Carol is pregnant with the child of her mother’s abusive and drunk boyfriend. Her younger sister Jenny can’t speak; she writes and sketches in a journal in order to communicate. David’s kidnapping seems like the latest in a line of tragedies to befall the women of Cold Rock.
Or is it? Like Martyrs, which shifts from a delusional revenge fantasy into something completely different — and much more diabolical — about halfway through, the premise upon which The Tall Man seems to rest quickly begins to crumble before viewers’ eyes.
Julia is accused of being responsible for the missing children by Mrs. Johnson, who claims to be David’s mother. Reconciling this knowledge with the image of Julia presented — concerned, caring, motherly — is a challenge. This is further complicated by the fact that she’s portrayed by Jessica Biel. As film viewers, we have been trained to believe that beauty signifies goodness. Mrs. Johnson verbalizes this idea when she refers to Julia as an “angel face” before punching her to the ground.
This is similar to the narrative bait and switch enacted in Martyrs: viewers can sympathize with the plight of poor, tortured Lucie, at least up until she slaughters a seemingly innocent family. It’s only later, when Anna discovers the hidden rooms in the Belfond home (and another victim named Sarah), that director Laugier reveals Lucie was telling the truth the entire time.
There are hidden places in The Tall Man as well, tunnels underneath the Denning house that allow Julia to send the kidnapped children to her presumed-dead husband (a.k.a. “The Tall Man”) who places them with more financially stable families elsewhere. Her impassioned speech to Mrs. Johnson about saving the children of Cold Rock from a “broken system” feels entirely sincere, but the film refuses to take a stance on whether or not Julia’s actions make her a hero or villain. As Julia herself states, “It’s not a matter of being a good person or being a bad person, it’s about how you cope.”
Even Jenny, eventually revealed as the voice-over narrator, cannot decide if she made the right choice in letting The Tall Man lead her to into a new and better life. She admits that she’s happy, but every day she thinks about going back to Cold Rock. “I made it happen. I guess its better this way, right? Right? Right?” She looks straight at the camera, a tear falling from her eye as the screen fades to black.
At the end of Martyrs, Mademoiselle asks Anna what she has discovered after her ordeal and then subsequently commits suicide. What does Anna tell her? This unanswered question is much like the one that Jenny asks at the end of The Tall Man. Once again, it is the audience who must decide if there actually any answers to the questions that Laugier has raised.
By refusing to provide facile answers, The Tall Man is, in many ways, just as much of a challenging film as Martyrs. It may not have the cringe-inducing violent visuals, but it presents violence of a different sort: the slow eroding of the soul.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.