Review: The Tall Man (2012)
Editor’s Note: The Tall Man is available on VOD and opens on limited release tomorrow
Pascal Laugier. It’s a name the average cinephile may well recognise, even be able to associate with one of his films, but hardly one to get overly excited about. To horror geeks, though, the name carries a weight of almost divine proportion. With his 2008 film Martyrs, Laugier took the ferocious brutality and feckless bloodshed that had long soiled the genre’s reputation in the eyes of its detractors and made it something more. Martyrs was a masterpiece of horror cinema, perhaps the finest example of its genre this century has yet seen. A powerful, provocative, probing film, it not only imbued worn out tropes with vast new meaning, it managed also to both embody and comment upon the transcendent potentiality of fear.
Suffice it to say that Laugier refuses to play by the rules, and a mid-point turn in events forces us to re-evaluate everything that has gone before. The film’s twist is inspired, an ingenious turn that grasps the audience firmly by the collar and forces them, willingly or not, to reconsider their own relationship to it.
Four years of pained anticipation later, The Tall Man is at last upon us. Laugier’s long-awaited follow-up to Martyrs is just about as distinct from that film’s style as is possible without shifting genre entirely. Like Laugier’s debut House of Voices, the story of a pregnant woman hired to tend to an abandoned orphanage, The Tall Man takes a familiar horror scenario as its basis, seeing Jessica Biel play a single mother striving to rescue her child from the clutches of the eponymous spectre. There’s little in any of the film’s marketing materials to suggest this as anything more than a standard horror film, much less the latest offering from one of the genre’s most promising minds.
Of course standard is the one thing no Laugier film could ever be called, and The Tall Man is as much a by-the-book missing child movie as Martyrs was an average serving of torture porn. It’s a difficult film to describe, the effect of its story thriving on the impact of surprise, its most poignant philosophies hinged on the gradual reveal of its plot. Suffice it to say that Laugier refuses to play by the rules, and a mid-point turn in events forces us to re-evaluate everything that has gone before. The film’s twist is inspired, an ingenious turn that grasps the audience firmly by the collar and forces them, willingly or not, to reconsider their own relationship to it. Laugier is a great master of toying with his viewers and demanding they not be merely dissociated witnesses; here he applies his considerable powers of redefinition to the tired old tropes of jump scares and supernatural bogeymen, probing the deeper issues lurking beneath the surface of a scenario we think we know so well.
The Tall Man simply doesn’t have enough to support itself through a convention-ridden first forty minutes, and until Laugier reveals his bluff there’s little to the film to abate the mounting sense of tedium.
The issue with The Tall Man, and with all genre deconstructions to some extent, is that to redefine conventions first they must be defined in painstaking detail. It’s a problem that hampered The Cabin in the Woods this year too, the excess time spent establishing the generic scenario before tearing it down inescapably dull at times. Though The Tall Man uses the conventionality of its first act for very specific, very smart reasons, these don’t make it any less protracted and dull. This was the death of House of Voices, an intelligent horror film with a shockingly effective ending that nonetheless spent so long being a mediocre genre piece that its commentary seemed little more than an afterthought to give it some distinguishing substance. Even Martyrs took its time before getting to the point, though the sheer shock value of its horrors carried it throughout the opening act. The Tall Man simply doesn’t have enough to support itself through a convention-ridden first forty minutes, and until Laugier reveals his bluff there’s little to the film to abate the mounting sense of tedium.
Reminding us of the genre’s weaknesses may in turn become a weakness for The Tall Man, but its strengths in improving them are so many that those flaws seem to pale as they fade further into the past. The tidy work of cinematographer Kamal Derkaoui and the impressively convincing turn from Jessica Biel give Laugier the means to make his second act a compelling story as well as a metatextual commentary, engaging our emotions with much the same efficiency as with our intellects. It’s something of a shame that he can’t quite bring these elements together well enough in the film’s conclusion, the closing social commentary an intriguing addition, if not a realised one. Though it’s great to see a horror filmmaker working with the mechanics of the genre to pass comment on his work and on the world around, The Tall Man botches its landing, falling short of its ambitions and seeming only to allude to a wider theme where it intends to pass comment. It’s a film of reckonable intelligence, and one that further points to its director as one of the most interesting minds working in horror, but it’s a deeply troubled one, a rock solid second act just not solid enough to make up for the sagging scenes either end.