If you’ve discussed horror films with me for more than five minutes, you likely know my feelings about French director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. It’s a film that infuriated me when I saw it, but not for the reasons that you might think. Yet the potential of Martyrs to be a truly great horror movie is what made me curious about Laugier’s most recent feature, The Tall Man, out on DVD and Blu-Ray September 25.
Those who loved Martyrs for its uncompromising violence may despise The Tall Man, feeling incredibly disappointed. Martyrs 2 it is not. If you are willing to put aside expectations and embrace a beautifully crafted, wonderfully acted, suspenseful, and thought-provoking film that is heavy on subtext and light on gore, than I urge you to check out The Tall Man.
Jessica Biel plays Julia Denning, a nurse in a rural Washington town that has seen far better days. If you’ve seen Winter’s Bone, you’re already familiar with the territory: decrepit trailers, stray dogs, listless residents, unhappy children, and little hope for a bright future. Biel is excellent as Julia; her natural physical beauty does not overpower the character. She looks plain and tired, but feels achingly real.
The town’s children have been disappearing for months without a trace and Sheriff Chestnut (William B. Davis) and police lieutenant Dodd (Stephen McHattie) aren’t quite in agreement as to why. A local urban legend called “the tall man” has caused many townspeople to scoff while others are terrified.
The Tall Man looks exquisite. Although a lot of horror films are shot with a blue overcast, here it works in the movie’s favor and not as a cliché. Cold Rock looks and sounds just like its namesake. The opening titles sequence in particular sets the tone for the dread felt throughout the film: Gigantic red letters appear in massive crane shots of unspoiled nature or farmland, with the unanswered question of the tall man’s origin lingering in the air. The music in the opening sequence is also superb, recalling Bernard Herrmann’s panicky music for Psycho.
As events unfold and we grow closer to the characters, the whole movie drops out from under you and you spend the rest of it grasping for something to help pull you off the precipice. This is where Laugier’s Martyrs legacy peeks in. While the shift in tone of The Tall Man is not as extreme as the one in that film, it nonetheless establishes Laugier (who also wrote the script) as someone who likes to subvert assumptions.
The feeling of not knowing—but suspecting—what’s going on is delicious, especially because you will struggle to reconcile your new analysis with what you think you’ve seen over and over until the truth finally settles in. No doubt even those who’ve been on board with the film up to this point will feel cheated because the ending may still not be to their liking.
Laugier had something to say with Martyrs, even if, like me, you didn’t necessarily like the way he said it. The same can be said of The Tall Man. At the risk of spoiling anything, the film’s detractors should consider how the subject matter could have been cheapened if covered on a more recent episode of Law & Order: SVU. I can recall several episodes of Law & Order that handled a similar subject from a different perspective, but this one is even more provocative, evoking basic human and civil rights.
The issues that Laugier raises in The Tall Man are topical and controversial, and if stretched to their logical conclusion, even touch upon the abortion debate that is currently such a divisive topic in the United States. Yet, The Tall Man is not preachy; it raises these questions and then makes you think. Even the last line of dialogue in the film is a question.
The wealth of fully realized, yet deeply flawed, female characters in The Tall Man (as well as Martyrs) speaks to a tendency in Laugier’s filmmaking to do away with horror clichés and focus on real women instead of stereotypes. Rather than criticizing him for not repeating the extreme horror of Martyrs, we should celebrate him for daring to ask troubling questions in a unique, artistic way.
The Tall Man was released by Image Entertainment on September 25 and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray transfer is crisp and gorgeous. The disc includes a deleted scene that was probably cut for time, as it is somewhat lengthy and doesn’t add much plot wise. Personally, I think it would have been better left in, at least from a visual and tonal point of view. There is also a trailer for the film and some wonderful visual concept art from Matthieu Lauffray.