The Tall Man is a great deal more thought-provoking and complicated than the poster, the trailer, and even the title all suggest. This works both for and against it. On the one hand, it’s refreshing that the filmmakers aimed for something a bit more original and stimulating than a routine thriller with slasher overtones, which is how it has been marketed. On the other hand, their aim might have been too high; what’s ultimately revealed is logistically implausible, emotionally weighty, and likely to divide audiences in their sociopolitical beliefs. I cannot explain the latter without the issuing of a spoiler warning, but rest assured, it threw me completely for a loop. There’s much to admire about this film on a technical level, from the atmosphere to the performances to the pacing to the nail-biting suspense. On a narrative level, however, I find myself questioning the intent and the execution.
The story is set in the isolated small town of Cold Rock, Washington, which was once thriving but is now destitute following the closure of a mine. Recently, there has been a rash of child kidnappings, all of which have been attributed to a local legend known as The Tall Man, a shadowy figure whose face is concealed beneath a jacket hood. Some residents claim to have seen him roaming the dense forests. Others don’t believe he exists. One thing they can all agree on is that, because no one has found a trace of the missing children, it’s unknown if they’re dead or alive. All this is recalled by a teenager named Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), who, despite being unable to speak, serves as the film’s narrator. Living with a detached mother, an alcoholic stepfather, and a sister the stepfather in all likelihood impregnated, she communicates through a sketchbook.
The central character is Julia Dunning (Jessica Biel), a nurse. She was married to a well respected doctor, who was said to be the glue that held the community together, but he has long since left the picture. She has a little boy named David (Jakob Davies), who she cares about very much. One night, after unwisely getting drunk with her friend Christine (Eve Harlow), she witnesses David being abducted by a figure wearing a black jacket. Julia makes a valiant effort to get David back; she chases the kidnapper out of her house, climbs on the back of the kidnapper’s truck, and successfully attacks the kidnapper while the truck is in motion, causing it to crash. Unfortunately, this hooded figure still manages to disappear into the night with David. All Julia can do is lie in the middle of the road in the fetal position and wait for a car to pass by.
And this is the point at which my review will become annoyingly vague. I will say that Julia, using only her wits, makes her way to an abandoned warehouse, where she believes David is being held prisoner. Does she find him? Does she have an encounter with The Tall Man? Are the police, or any of the Cold Rock residents, trying to help her? All I can say is, with so many parents awaiting news about their lost children, it’s understandable that there’s animosity and mistrust. Then again, do we really know the situations these children were taken away from? After all writer/director Pascal Laugier doesn’t delve into the lives of every grieving parent. For all we know, these children were being abused or neglected. Even if they weren’t, Cold Rock is so destitute that their parents wouldn’t have been able to adequately provide for them.
Not one but two plot twists lay the groundwork for the entire second half of the film. The first one is actually rather predictable, the structure, pacing, dialogue, and character development all serving as cinematic hints. It could have been satisfying had it not been so routine. A lesser film might have ended at that point. But then we get the second twist, which reveals that there’s so much more to the story than we initially thought. On a purely technical level, I must give Laugier credit for successfully employing the element of surprise, especially at a time when twists have become all too commonplace in mystery thrillers. In all honesty, I thought I had become immune to them.
Where makes me wary is a strong suggestion made by the second twist, namely that the events plaguing the town of Cold Rock are actually blessings in disguise. I don’t think I buy it. Earlier, I played devil’s advocate by insinuating that, by being kidnapped, the children might have been spared a deprived upbringing and a bleak future; in reality, we’re talking about boys and girls taken against their will from the only life they’ve known. Without knowing the full extent of their backgrounds, you still have to ask yourself how fair this is. And then there’s the issue of believability, the second twist dependent on complex technicalities and dramatic contrivances. There’s no question in my mind that The Tall Man is an ambitious thriller. But it’s open for debate how compelling it is. That would depend entirely on what you bring into it.