Jessica Biel stars in "The Tall Man" (2012), a French/Canadian/American production from Cold Rock Productions BC directed and written by little-known Pascal Laugier ("Martyrs"). This crime/mystery/thriller seems to provoke strong reactions in its audiences, though not always what the film-makers intended. Pascal Laugier may have quite a future in the business, but he struggles to show it with this muddled production. There are some positives, to be sure, such as an interesting premise but the execution becomes annoying at every possible opportunity.
The small town of Cold Rock, British Columbia (apparently - though some thing suggest it may be in the States) used to be a thriving mining town, but the mines closed down and the local economy died. There still are miles of abandoned tunnels underneath the town and nearby mountains, but nobody goes in them any longer unless they are up to no good. There is a local legend of a "Tall Man" who abducts children, though nobody has ever gotten a good look at him. He may or may not exist, but kids are definitely disappearing at a steady pace.
Julia Denning (Jessica Biel) is the wealthy young widow of the town doctor. She shares her home with young David (Jakob Davies) and his nanny. Her mother lives with an abusive boyfriend who got Julia's sister Carol (Katherine Ramdeen) pregnant, so she left town.
One night, Julia puts David to bed and goes to sleep downstairs on the couch. When a noise awakens her, she finds the nanny tied and gagged and David missing. She rushes out into the night and spies somebody - perhaps the fabled Tall Man - taking David. She pursues them into the woods and on to a speeding truck, eventually losing track of them and getting herself injured in the process.
It turns out that David isn't actually Julia's son at all, but rather a boy whose real mother was the one who came to Julia's house and took him. Julia herself kidnapped the boy, and he was just being rescued in a secretive manner because his real mother, a homeless woman without any influence, accidentally found out where he was and didn't trust the police to help her.
Julia pursues the pair to an abandoned hospital where the woman lives. Julia manages to recapture David and takes him back to her house. Her young friend Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), who assists her, and who comes from an abusive home and is mute, tells her in writing to "Let the Tall Man take him, too." Julia doesn't want to do that at first, but ultimately agrees it is the right thing. She takes David down into the tunnels and leaves him there.
The entire town now believes that Julia is the one responsible for the disappearance of all the children. They believe that Julia is a mass murderer of kids. Lt. Dodd (Stephen McHattie) questions Julia, and she admits to taking the children. She refuses, though, to say where they are or what exactly happened to them. Julia is retained in custody, unlikely ever to be released.
Julia, we find out, did not kill any of the children, and her husband is not dead. They have kidnapped the kids to give them to wealthy people who want to adopt them and give them a better life, sort of like a modern-day Robin Hood. Jenny herself goes off into a field and find Julia's husband there waiting for her - he is the "Tall Man." He takes Jenny to a nearby city, where she is given to a new family to begin her life anew with a civilized, wealthy family. Jenny becomes a wealthy woman's daughter, now named Vera. She recovers the ability to speak and adjusts to her new life, although with difficulty. She still thinks about her birth family, bad as it was, and wonders if leaving them was a good idea after all.
"The Tall Man" is deeply philosophical about many things, and that will intrigue some viewers. However, the film does not present itself as a philosophical meditation. Instead, it masquerades as a horror film along the lines of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" or "The Hills Have Eyes." Since many people are interested in horror films, and fewer in philosophical meditations, it is understandable why the film-makers hide the film's true nature at every possible opportunity. The usual horror film tricks are used - sudden noises, mysterious half-seen figures, unexplained disappearances and the like - to create an aura of something that just isn't there. It is the old bait-and-switch, where the viewer is left with something for which they did not bargain. While the film makes sense in hindsight, it is only in hindsight that such is the case. While watching it fresh, the plot is an incoherent, chaotic mess that purposefully misleads and uses horror-film tricks when no horror awaits.
The only reason this film was made, one suspects, was because A-list star Jessica Biel felt like making it. She has the clout. Perhaps she wanted to burnish her dramatic credentials, or have a rare chance to play a dominant lead, or perhaps the controversial philosophy of the plot appealed to her. Whatever the reason, she does all right, but hardly is spectacular. She wears no makeup, presumably to give her that "local" look even though she supposedly is the wealthiest woman in town, and spends most of the film mute. After a while, one is tempted to question whether her character is supposed to have some problem speaking, but that turns out not to be the case. When she does speak, she makes little sense, but that is more a script issue than anything to do with her. She struggles to show raw emotion, and appears to think that simply moving slowly is enough to suggest deeper pain and suffering. Her face is mostly blank, with a pout added for emphasis, and it isn't clear at any point that the character has anything going on upstairs.
Anyone looking for the "I'm too pretty to get good roles" Jessica will be disappointed, as she is plain and reduced to painting a morose expression on her face throughout. She also wears heavy coats, so the viewer can't even see her spectacular body for whatever solace that might bring. Nobody else in the film, character, actor, whatever, is remotely interesting, though some have done better work elsewhere (Ferland, for instance, was in "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse). Many plot points make absolutely no sense: a woman abducts her own kid back rather than going to the police, none of the abducted kids runs away and back to their natural families and spills the beans, etc. If you want an idea of how you may feel after viewing this, imagine one of those satires of horror films, where they use every horror film tricks - extreme closeups, sudden noises that make the character sharply turn his/her head in shock, abrupt door openings, people who illogically avoid the authorities and take matters into their own hands - and it all just turns out to be some poor schnook going shopping or whatever. Or perhaps you went to see a science fiction film, and to your shock it turned out to be an extended advertisement for some religion or cult that funded it. That's "The Tall Man," except it is all done for real, not for laughs.
One odd note about this film is that one of the popular web review sites appears to have been manipulated with positive reviews of this decidedly mediocre drama. Just goes to show you the importance of having independent voices in the blogosphere. Films like "The Tall Man," which attempt to make people think they are something they are not and manufacture cheap, tortuous thrills without satisfactory pay-offs, are a blight on the film industry.
If you are in the mood for a thought-provoking non-thriller which pretends to be a thriller, or have to see every single film featuring Jessica Biel, "The Tall Man" is a good place to start. All others, beware.
Below is the trailer.
|Promotional photo - she doesn't look this good in the actual film|
|Broken glass abounds in this film|
|Jessica Biel with cut face|
|Jessica Biel hunting for the real killers|
|Jessica Biel close-up|
|Stephen McHattie as Lt. Dodd|
|Jessica tracking down David|
|Jenny and David|
|The police outside the abandoned mine|
|Jessica fighting the person who took her son|
|They look like regular folks having fun!|
Below is the trailer.