Thursday, October 04, 2012

A Tall Tale

I'm not entirely sure of what to do with Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man (2012). It's some variety of genre film, but it's a confounding one. It has the trappings of a horror movie. It has the mindfuck qualities of a puzzle movie. It ultimately resolves itself with a moral question that I don't know that it is equipped to deal with through the instrument of genre, particularly because the way it frames its entire problem reeks of privilege--a fact of which I'm not sure its makers are aware. A word of warning, this is a movie that relies on sleight of hand for its effects and I want to talk a bit about the plot turns on which the film's legerdemain relies. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

The story here centers on one Julia Denning, a nurse in the sleepy, dying mining town of Cold Rock. Cold Rock has been plagued by the disappearance of its children, eighteen all told, who local legend says have been abducted by "The Tall Man." Julia doesn't believe in this boogeyman. What she does see is a town where hope has fled. Her husband, a doctor, was a pillar of the community, but he's dead now and she's the only medical provider around. The film opens with her delivering a baby, as it so happens. Mother and baby are sent away to keep them away from the horrors of their town. The horror comes home to Julia when her own child is abducted. Julia chases after it, but fails to catch the kidnapper. She's found on the road by the FBI man on the case who takes her to shelter with the townspeople, but the townspeople have changed. They seem openly hostile to Julia now, and when she makes a break for it away from their comforting arms, they organize a posse to hunt her down. And then the twist comes...

...Julia herself is the kidnapper. The child in her house was not hers. She is the servitor of the titular Tall Man, and the child has been abducted by his actual mother. Julia is eventually caught and sent to prison, without telling anyone what has actually happened to the children. Then the movie offers another twist at the end. One of the film's secondary characters is Jenny, a burgeoning artist with a speech impediment. She knows what Julia is up to and why and she begs Julia to aid in her own abduction. At the end of the movie, she's taken, and the whole scheme is revealed as a means of taking children from impoverished homes and giving them a leg up to reach their potential, without poverty and disadvantage dragging them down.

This film's marketing is a blatant exercise in bait and switch. It's promising prospective viewers a new horror boogeyman a la Freddy Krueger, and then reneging on that promise. I feel bad for the film, though not too bad. It kinda brings the whole thing on itself.

In principle, I like the idea of turning the tables on an audience in the way this film tries. We make too many assumptions about the characters that films designate as protagonists, sometimes in repugnant ways. I think Hitchcock would have liked this film's central twist, given that he did something similar in Psycho and certainly liked to examine the guilt complexes of his heroes. I admit, too, that the film is having a bit of fun with the audience in its early scenes of domestic bliss when Julia is playing with the child we assume is her son. These scenes seemed a bit too on the nose to me, a bit too idyllic, and then the film turns around and agrees with me. Julia, it should be said, is a difficult role and it demands more of Jessica Biel than I ever thought she could give. That she's ultimately up to the part is one of the film's nicer pleasures.

I'm tempted to view this film as a parody of liberal guilt, along the lines of About Schmidt (in which the central character assuages his own privilege by sponsoring an child in Africa), but the film is too lacking in humor for that. Does this film actually believe that the shadowy organization behind its plot is doing good? Is it doing evil? I'm not sure the makers of the film even know what they're saying, which is a big problem. What this is is a portrait of rich, privileged people taking it upon themselves to dictate what lives are worthy of poor children, however ennobled those lives may be. There's a very real human wreckage involved here. The film kind of brushes this off by portraying stereotypes of poor people as coming from broken homes where the women are sluts who crank out babies and put up with abusive, drunk boyfriends. The last part of this film pissed me off mightily. This is a reprehensible point of view. That this gives the audience a figure in Jenny who finds the escape attractive only adds salt to the wound and that Jenny is the narrator of the film only serves to normalize this film's horrid politics.

That all said, this is certainly an attractive film. Laugier certainly knows how to burnish the surfaces of his film to very precise textures and moods. He has the same kind of relentlessness of his fellow filmmakers in the current wave of French horror. The chase sequence at the center of this movie is a white-knuckler that reminds me more than a little of a similar scene in High Tension. It's unfortunate that this scene is the film's natural climax, because everything that comes after it is exposition that the filmmakers have hidden up their sleeve. Unraveling it might be necessary, but it makes for a slog during the film's third act, with a ridiculous payoff at the end.

Current tally: 4 film

First time viewings: 4

From Around the Web

Dr. AC checks back in with an update on his October Challenge Fundraiser.

Bob over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind casts his eye toward acid trip movie, Blue Sunshine, as well as Damien: Omen II and a couple of Friday the 13th movies. Bob lavishes his posts with terrific screencaps, something your humble bloginatrix occasionally fails at herself.

Eric at Expelled Grey Matter gets back on track with a look at the Spencer Tracy version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

A light day on the links. If you're blogging the challenge and want me to list you, let me know. Also, the conversation that's going on at the Facebook group is lively, even if you're not blogging the challenge.

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