Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Satan's School for Ghouls: The Tall Man (2012)

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend. You can find our collected annals of evil here. In the first of my contributions, I interpret the definition of "fiend" as broadly as humanly possible.

(Warning: even though I'm not going to go into this film's twists in any detail, discussing anything about it can't help but touch spoiler territory, so proceed at your own risk. Structural spoilers ahoy, too!).

The charmingly named US mining town of Cold Rock, Washington (as always doubled by British Columbia, the Bronson Canyon of the 90s and beyond) has taken a turn for the worse ever since the mine shut down years ago. It's now a poster child for picturesque poverty and squalor, like a kid's version of Winter's Bone. But there's something worse than mere poverty stalking the town's streets. For some time now, the town's children have been disappearing one after the other, without a trace. The townspeople are convinced their children are taken away by someone who has taken on mythical proportions in their minds. Thus they have turned him into "the Tall Man", a creature half monster from under your bed, half mystery.

This case is quite beyond town sheriff Chestnut's (William B. "Cigarette Smoking Man" Davis) abilities, but Lieutenant Dodd (Stephen McHattie), the big city cop sent to take care of the case, hasn't proven to be any more effective. He's hanging around, watching the town by night, getting nowhere. Things change when the child of Cold Rock's only remaining medical professional, the nurse moonlighting as a bit of a social worker, widow of the town's now dead and practically sainted GP, and designated protagonist Julia Denning (Jessica Biel), is kidnapped. In the following hours, some truths about what is really going on are bound to get to light, though not all of them will be pleasant, or believable to an audience.

If Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man is one thing, then it is willing to be more unpredictable than it at first seems to be. The film starts out like your typical stylish Hollywood thriller, with a plot, characters and narrative beats that are realized with great technical proficiency by people of obvious talent. It begins as the type of film that is clearly competently made, but also a bit boring thanks to what looks like a total lack of imagination; really not what I had hoped for from the guy who made my favourite piece of "torture porn", Martyrs.

However, after forty minutes of the expected have firmly established in the audience's mind what kind of film it is watching, Laugier pulls the rug out from under our feet twice in short succession. The first time he does it only changes the sub-type of thriller the film is working in, suggesting a classic piece of small town paranoia, but the second one undermines all the unspoken assumptions one makes when watching a movie of this style and type, assumptions about the nature and character of protagonists and audience identification. Laugier uses its audience's knowledge of filmic structures against itself. For the following half hour or so, the film thrives on a rather delicious feeling of confusion, because now that it has shown how far it is willing to stray from the conventions of the genre it is working in, everything seems possible, any direction open again. For once, the question of what the hell is going on in a thriller actually becomes pertinent again.

Unfortunately, the film's problems begin once Laugier decides to answer the question about what is going on. I would argue that, after the awesome (in the classic sense of the word) double-twist, there were only two ways the movie could have kept what its build-up promised: either by not answering the central questions of its plot at all, but keeping to suggestions and hints to incite feelings of dread and/or hope, or by giving an answer that's as dark and unpleasant as it could get away with.

Instead, the film ends on a curious mix of sentimentality and the sort of classism that makes a few distracting noises to pretend it isn't classist but humanist. There's pretension of going for a morally grey zone, but it's just damnably unconvincing after a film that seemed interested in doing interesting things with the genre it is working in, a film that seemed to be willing to go to uncomfortable and surprising places. Even worse, the ending we get is banal and therefore deeply unsatisfying, leaving the carefully built mood of what came before and the promises of mythic depth behind for the least exciting and thoughtful ending. Which at least is in keeping with The Tall Man's unpredictability.

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