Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Ghoul Versus Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man

The Tall Man? Is that like the Slender Man's low budget cousin?”

The New French Extremity is a so-called movement used to describe certain French filmmakers that deal in, let's be honest here, some of the most fucked up films imaginable. Films hit with this label often specialize in a combination of EXTREME sexuality and violence, with a heavy learning towards the horror genre. I've yet to review any of the films associated with the movement, but have mentioned them on here before when discussing directors Xavier Gens and Alexandre Aja, as both have entries on the list with their films Frontier(s) and High Tension, respectively.

Of all the films I've seen, none affected me as much as 2008's Martyrs, written and directed by Pascal Laugier. Without spoiling anything, it concerns a young woman getting kidnapped by a cult the horrific experiences she has as their captive. It is probably the most uncomfortable move I've EVER watched in my entire life, but unlike torture porn schlock like the Hostel series, its over the top violence had a point. A massively powerful film that I still think about seven years later, which is more than I can say about the majority of movies I've seen since then. I was very anxious to see what else Laugier had done, disappointed to find out he had only made one other film: 2004's Saint Ange, which I've never been able to track down.

Very recently I discovered he made a third film with almost no fanfare whatsoever, 2012's the Tall Man. I vaguely remember seeing trailers for it, but the second I saw Jessica Biel was the star I dismissed it and never gave it a second thought. The film only got a limited theatrical release before being released on home video less than a month later, and it generally faded into the great realm of obscurity. Until today that is, where we're going to check it out and hope that Laugier isn't just a one hit filmmaker. Get ready to cross your fingers and pray he gets a watchable performance out of Jessica Biel, because it is now time for A Ghoul Versus The Tall Man!

800,000 children are reported missing each year in the USA.

USA! USA! US- wait, that's a bad thing.

Most are found within a few days. 1,000 children disappear without leaving a trace...

After this somber statistic, we open with police officers exiting a cave in search of a missing boy. Among their number is Sheriff Chestnut, instantly recognizable as the esteemed actor William B. Davis of X-Files fame.  Also present is FBI agent Lieutenant Dodd, who goes to the hospital to update the boy's mother on the situation. Dodd is played by Stephen McHattie, who I'm sure you've seen in SOMETHING due to the fact he's nearly been in 200 movies. The boy's mother is Julia Denning, played by Jessica Biel, whom is currently having glass shards removed from her very fresh-from-an-accident face. We then go back 36 hours to the small town of Cold Rock, Washington, where we are treated to... narration to kick things off! Le sigh.

A girl named Jenny talks about how the town has basically died since the mine was closed, but then makes a reference to how something much worse is lurking under its surface. Before we can get any elaboration on this, a car with a mother and her two daughters drives to the local clinic where one of them, Carol, is currently in great pain. Julia runs out of the clinic to help them, discovering that Carol's very pregnant and in the early stages of labour. Tracy, the mother, had no idea about this. Tracy's actress is Samantha Ferris, known to millions of Supernatural fans as the badass demon hunter Ellen Harvelle, but to me she's always be the voice of Sally from the anime Gundam Wing.

While they take Carol inside to give birth, the youngest daughter sits outside to draw a picture of a baby. This is our narrator Jenny, played by the always awesome young actress Jodelle Ferland. You may remember her from the Twilight Saga, but she probably wouldn't hold it against you if you didn't. That wasn't exactly the best vehicle to gauge her acting talent. After Carol gives birth to a baby boy, Tracy tells Julia they will NOT be going to the hospital because they want to keep the entire incident a secret. They drive back home, Jenny narrating again and finally expounding on what she mentioned earlier: something in Cold Rock is stealing children. Locals have begun to call this something the Tall Man, as we see in numerous interview clips of grieving parents.

Julia goes to the local diner where she spots local crazy woman Mrs. Johnson lurking outside, bringing her a cup of coffee. Or at least she tries, as Johnson runs off without accepting it. Julia's next stop is to check up on Carol and her baby, but finds Tracy has sent her family to live in Seattle. We get to briefly meet Steven, the father of Carol's baby, who is the typical local biker dirtbag. Julia goes outside to talk to Jenny, who actually can't talk despite her gift for narration. She communicates only through the written word, showing Julia a picture of the Tall Man (a figure in a cloak) and writing that she saw him.

Her errands for the day done, Julia returns to her gigantic home, her slightly creepy young child David, and his nanny Christine. It seems Julia's deceased husband was a much beloved doctor, and some people, such as Steven, don't think Julia is fit to follow in his footsteps. After dinner and putting David to bed, Julia falls asleep on the couch only to get awoken by a radio in the kitchen blaring. She goes to turn it off, finding a beaten and bound Christine lying on the floor. Julia dashes upstairs to check on David, finding him gone. She goes back down to untie Christine and ask her what happened, but sees a hooded man carrying David leaving the kitchen.

She chases after him, the kidnapper jumping into a nearby van and taking off. In an EXTREMELY RARE instance of competence, Julia is able to chase the van down and jump onto the back of it. The van stops and the driver gets out, Julia diving under the vehicle to hide from him. While he goes into the back of the van, she crawls out and peeks in the back, seeing David asleep. When she tries to get into the cab, a vicious German Shepherd leaps out and begins to attack her. DAMN! Julia, who just might be the smartest person in a horror movie EVER, grabs a rock and knocks it out before it can tear her throat out.

Julia's luck ends there though, as the Tall Man grabs her and slams her head against the van. She wakes up in the back of the van with her hands tied behind her back and the dog guarding her, and BOY does he look pissed over the whole rock to the head thing. HOWEVER, Julia happens to notice a jagged hole on the wall behind her and uses it to cut her ropes off, because she is now the Emily Blunt of Scream Queens. The next shot is the Tall Man driving the van while David is asleep on the passenger seat, when suddenly Julia SMASHES THROUGH THE GLASS PARTITION to begin choking him out. Did I say the Emily Blunt? FUCK THAT, Julia is now the Diane Kruger of Scream Queens. Don't fuck with Julia Denning!

Things erupt into a total clusterfuck as the dog bites Julia's leg, the Tall Man starts swerving all over the road, and David wakes up screaming.  The van eventually crashes into a large tree branch on the road and wrecks, landing on its side. David climbs out of the passenger door, but unfortunately the Tall Man does too and grabs him. Although it's not in a rough manner, it's almost as if Danny recognizes him because he allows the hooded man to pick him up with no struggle. HMMM... how did Julia's husband die again? I don't believe they ever said. Jenny, riding by on her bike, witnesses all of this but then pedals away when she hears a banging noise coming from the van. This is a bloodied Julia kicking her way out, but because she's a walking badass she still has the wherewithal to follow the Tall Man's footprints into the muddy forest off the side of the road.
The footprints abruptly stop and she finally allows the horror of her situation to sink it, collapsing against a tree stump. She wanders back out to the road where she eventually passes out, discovered by Agent Dodd.  He... drops her off at the cafe instead of taking her to the hospital? Wha? Chestnut is there, Dodd telling him to call an ambulance for Julia while he goes to search for the Tall Man. Trish, the owner of the cafe, sends Julia into her office to get herself cleaned up, where she JUST HAPPENS to overhear a conversation between Chestnut and a local weirdo named Douglas that catches her attention. Douglas talks about how Chestnut has to be very careful or he'll lose his pension, as well as the fact he needs to check the old mine to see what “she” is up to.

The weirdness doesn't just stop there though, Julia also finds a corner of the office is a shrine dedicated to all of the missing children, David's picture among them. As she has her mind blown by this, the cafe's cook spies on her through the window and runs around front to tell everyone in the diner Julia has seen the shrine. You know, Trish is kind of a fucking idiot. It's not like that shrine was even remotely hidden, it was out in the open for anyone to see. Did she honestly not think Julia wouldn't see it? Douglas runs into the back to get Julia, but she has wisely run out the back door. Everyone in the diner runs out to their vehicles to grab weapons, and then go into the forest in pursuit of her, hooting and hollering how they're going to kill her. What the hell is going on in this town?

Chestnut does not join the impromptu lynch mob, instead driving out to the mine where he enters a building that does not look abandoned in the slightest. When he's well out of sight, Julia crawls out of the backseat of his cruiser. GodDAMN, I fucking love Julia. Chestnut doesn't stay very long, telling someone off camera about Julia and then driving off while she sneaks inside. The building is the mine's old facility, and is filled with rooms decorated for children. Julia spots a shadowy figure that greatly resembles her son, doing the bit where she chases him from room to room while he keeps disappearing. She finally corners him in a room where the Tall Man jumps into frame and CRACKS her in the head with a pipe, knocking her to the ground.
The Tall Man takes his hood off, and it's MRS. JOHNSON! The shocks don't stop there though, as David hugs her and calls HER mommy. Double wha?! Julia finally succumbs to her latest head trauma, waking up tied to a chair. Johnson is sitting before her, and accuses HER of being the Tall Man, kidnapping her son and brainwashing him. She launches into a flashback sequence where she discovered Julia had David, and how she got everyone in the diner to help her get him back. That explains why Trish had a picture of David already, but still not why in the hell she thought it'd be a good idea for Julia to go back there if she thought she was the Tall Man- er, Tall Woman.

Johnson asks Julia what she's done with the other children in the town, and Julia responds that she's given them all to the Tall Man. Holy shit, this movie is just one big plot twist after another. Johnson hits her, but this is a baaaaad idea because it just pisses Julia off and she breaks out of her bonds. She responds with a fist of her own and begins to chase after David, who hides in a room upstairs. Not long after the door bursts open and it's... Jenny! Um, where the hell did she come from? They start to leave but Julia, doing her best Jason and/or Michael Myers impersonation, appears in the hallway to block them. PSYCHE! Jenny pushes David into Julia's arms and they run outside, where Jenny HOTWIRES A TRUCK so they can leave. MY ZOMBIE BRAIN HURTS FROM ALL THE TWISTS!

They drive back to Julia's, where we see Christine is also in on whatever the holy fuck is going on. Julia tells Jenny to go home, but she writes a message that says “I'm sure Christine called HIM. Take me to HIM”. Julia refuses, grabbing David and heading to her basement, despite Christine's protests. Julia emerges sometime later alone, walking outside to find Jenny still waiting for her. She tells the mute girl she gave him Jenny's name and address, and that maybe he'll come for her someday, BUT if she rats Julia out then he'll come in a way she won't like. This seems good enough for Jenny, so she finally leaves.

Starting to get groggy, Julia walks upstairs while we can hear the lynch mob arrive at her house and start pounding on the door. She lies on a couch and drifts off, the scene cutting to the next morning where the police are escorting her out of the house in handcuffs through the mob. On their way downstairs they pass Christine, who has hung herself. Dodd loads her into a cruiser which begins to speed away, but not before a man throws a rock through the window and right into her face. Dodd and Chestnut search the basement, finding it leads into a GARGANTUAN mine shaft. They walk through it, exiting at the cave that we opened the film with to bring us full circle. This certainly puts a spin on Dodd's hospital conversation with Julia, doesn't it?

Things jump ahead to later, where Julia is now in the state prison. Dodd calls in Johnson to speak with her in an attempt to make her divulge where all the missing children are. Julia, who has gone WAY off the deep end, gives a very impressive rant about how society is broken and does nothing to help children in what is EASILY the best acting of Jessica Biel's career. Johnson bluntly asks her if the children are dead, Julia nodding yes, adding “she couldn't keep them all”. Johnson breaks down, but manages to ask where their bodies are. Julia tells her the tunnels underneath the forest.

We return to Jenny, who is awoken by a drunken argument between Tracy and Steven. She goes outside to get away from it, drawn into the nearby woods by a noise. Naturally she gets grabbed by a Tall Man, although he's more a Shadowy Man since he's not wearing a hood. He takes her to his car, inviting her to get into a compartment under the back seat, which she does. He drives out of Cold Rock to Seattle, where we cut to a very healthy looking Jenny in a huge bedroom putting on makeup. The Tall Man leads her into a hallway where a distinguished older woman is waiting to adopt her, as this entire operation is revealed to take kids from broken homes and put them with people who will love them and properly take care of them. The Tall Man is, surprise surprise, Julia's TOTALLY NOT DEAD husband Robert, which I... KINDA called. Robert mentions Jenny is the last child his group will ever place into a better home, but there are other divisions out there.

A few months pass and we see Jenny's life has greatly improved, as evidenced by the fact she is now able to talk. As she walks to the art school she attends, she passes a park where she happens to see David playing with his new family. They exchange glances, but he seems not to recognize her. She narrates about how she often thinks of her old life and returning to it, but decides the new life she's chosen is better.

I guess it's better this way, right? Right? Right?”

Cue the credits, with a final shot of Jenny looking directly at us as she asks her question.

THAT WAS FUN! I absolutely adore movies like this, where you think everything is going one way and then every expectation you had was subverted but NOT in a cheap, cop out way. Everything lined up perfectly after the flurry of plot twists, and how many films can you say THAT about in the modern era? Pascal Laugier certainly knows how to control an audience, as well as keep his stories from getting out of control. It's hard to imagine a film like this in anyone else's hands, seeing as how it's multiple types of genres all mashed into one. You only have to take a look at his fellow French Extremist Alexandre Aja's Horns to see how wrong mixing formulas can go.

Laugier is also a master at getting fantastic performances out of his actors, as Jessica Biel FUCKING NAILED this thing. It's almost mind boggling that in the same year she was doing this role, she also was helping to ruin the Total Recall remake every time she opened her mouth. What a different a director makes, eh?  It really is a shame almost no one had a chance to see this film to witness her kicking every kind of ass imaginable, but I imagine the subject matter made the studio very hesitant to give it a wide release due to its subject matter. Although Gone Baby Gone, which also featured child kidnapping with ulterior motives, was a critical hit, so who's to say?

I'm sure marketing the film had to be a nightmare, as every single trailer (and even the box art for the movie itself) plays up the purported supernatural element to make this look like a horror story. This is CRUCIAL to the way the movie gets inside your head, but as we all know horror movies never get any respect so that kind of doomed it out of the gate. Still though, they could have tried a BIT harder instead of saddling this movie with Godawful taglines like “Fear Takes a New Shape” and “the Kids Are NOT Alright”. Blegh.

Definitely a rare gem worth going out of your way to watch, I give this a very high recommendation. Come for the slick editing and pacing, the gorgeous cinematography, and stay for the incredible Jessica Biel performance that redefines the term "powerhouse". You'll even get to leave with some thought provoking subject matter to think over for the next few days, it's the gift that keeps on giving!