Canadian/French mystery-thriller The Tall Man (2012), courtesy of Martyrs (2008) director Pascal Laugier, is set in a poverty-stricken former mining town where the disappearance of children is a regular occurrence – the titular ‘Tall Man’ seemingly accountable for many of the abductions. American actress Jessica Biel plays Julia Denning, a widowed nurse whose own son disappears, leading her to seek out the mystery of the child snatcher for herself. Julia lives in a small town in Washington called Cold Rock where she is the district nurse. There is no school in this place. No work, nor play, just misery in the shadows of missing children.
A highly regarded, model member of the community, Julia visits several families during her working day including Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), a young girl who is selectively mute and only writes down her feelings in a notebook. Jenny also draws pictures of things only she has seen. Julia is somewhat alarmed when she discovers a drawing of the mythical legend, but when her own son, David (Jakob Davies), is abducted by the Tall Man, it soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems in the darkly atmospheric town.
Laugier plays on the primary fear of every parent and introduces his latest film with informative text on the terrifying statistics of missing children. The narrator is Jenny – the mute girl adding to the fear as she introduces the viewer to Cold Rock, a town not dissimilar in eeriness to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, the tension is quickly shattered by Biel’s busybody protagonist, who’s excessively involved in other peoples’ business. Whilst high on dark atmosphere, the daytime TV movie performances really let the side down and disable any empathy felt for the characters or the tragedy of their situations. This is also hindered further by Laugier’s distinct lack of directorial focus – a surprise, given his past efforts.
Our point-of-view clumsily changes several times throughout the first two acts as the film dips its toes into several genres, without fully committing to any them. What’s a horror without horrors, or a thriller without thrills? Suspense is also dispelled by way of a melodramatic, heavy-breathing Biel and an incongruously distracting soundtrack, whilst the tired use of thunderous weather and the squawks of crows are used to provoke scares, but ultimately fall on deaf ears. In addition, the dire, no-frills special effects formed the film’s major embarrassment when Julia is dragged along a road whilst she clutches to the back of a van. The scene is supposed to be both breathtaking and wince-inducing, but instead draws only howls of derision.
The Tall Man’s bizarre social agenda regarding child poverty and exploitation somehow gets forgotten along the way, only to rears its shamefully empty head in a contrived, bookended finale. Like 2007’s The Orphanage, Laugier’s movie begins in a ghostly spiritual place and ends firmly in the real world. However, unlike Juan Antonio Bayona’s vastly superior effort, The Tall Man has little or no heart, soul or devilish backbone.