**1/2 out of ****
He might have toned down the gore significantly and emphasized more on sheer atmosphere for the sake of it, but Pascal Laugier's "The Tall Man" is no less polarizing than the film that put him on the map as a director to watch, "Martyrs". Some people hated that film while others loved it, and I found myself in the latter group; as a horror film, it is not merely another standard high-body-count torture porn exercise, but rather an intelligent, provocative, and thoughtful horror film. "The Tall Man" has all those qualities as well, although everything is taken down a notch. It's not as smart, uncompromising, or unforgettably harrowing as Laugier's sophomore effort (his first film was "House of Voices"); but under his direction, it comes this close to working.
It all takes place in a small mining town, and in establishing the bleak atmosphere of the place, Laugier does some good and some bad. The town seems empty and very small indeed, although it would have been even emptier and smaller had the crappy voiceover not been included. So with that out of the way, we can get on to the story. The heroine is the local doctor Julia Dunning (Jessica Biel). She's a good enough person to assist in the birth of a teenage girl's child, help the girl's mute sister (Jodelle Ferland) to gather the courage to speak again, and offer coffee to the town loony. She has one son who she loves very much. The heart of the premise is located in the lore of the local legend, a child kidnapper (and probably molester) known as The Tall Man. One night, he takes Julia's kid, and things get personal.
Here's the weird part: when Julia is discovered bloodied and sleeping in the middle of the road by the small-town cop Dodd (Stephen McHattie) and brought to the nearby diner, the townsfolk seem anxious for her to freshen up. Almost instantly, one of them loses his cool and attempts to assault her while she's in the bathroom, although she's already escaped out the back door. Then we learn that the townsfolk want to bring Julie to justice, for whatever reason. What did she do? Is she being framed for the child kidnappings? Either way, she evades capture through the woods, where the Tall Man supposedly lives. To reveal any more than that would do the majority of the film a great injustice.
Laugier's latest is a labyrinth of a horror film that offers up mystery and thrills in satisfactory fashion. It's a downwards spiral of intrigue that keeps getting better as it goes along (in my opinion), although for others it might just get increasingly ridiculous. There are several twists along the way, and the final one is always the most important. Unlike most films of its kind, "The Tall Man" has a twist that will most likely get you talking whether you actually go with it or not. I don't find it absurd but rather stimulating, and overall the ideas behind this film are more interesting than its execution, which is disappointing especially when compared to Laugier's previous film.
But I still think that he builds up tension effectively without resorting to those ever-cheap jump scares. It's not a pretty looking or over-stylized film, nor does it utilize the slow-burn. It kind of exists on the edge between mainstream and unconventional horror; incorporating a story that deals with themes of motherhood, parenting, and even the GOOD things that can come from child abduction. Laugier doesn't quite acquire the level of mind-fuck-ness he was probably aiming for, but I enjoy movies that mess with your head. This one doesn't really get inside it, but while it's still going, it has fun with its ideas, setting, and actors (this is one of the most controlled and engaging Jessica Biel performances if not the best, even though she's far from compelling). Hear me out; this film is definitely imperfect and few of its big ideas come full circle, but I acknowledge it as an interesting stylistic departure for Laugier, who proves once again that it's not the blood and the guts that he's interested in; it's the psychological thrills and the social commentary. I'll keep him on the watch list for now.