Using every parent's worst nightmare as its central premise, 'The Tall Man' commences with an engaging mystery that slowly turns into a labyrinthine, socio-psychological thriller. Despite coming with a firm grasp of reality and a sense of current economic woes, the French film by 'Martyrs' director Pascal Laugier also hints at a supernatural element as a local legend is blamed for the disappearances of children in one small mining town. It's a great start that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats and continuously guessing as the story twists and turns into a few morbidly strange possibilities, many of which would have been far more satisfying than the frustrating conclusion we actually end up with.
Set in a close-knit community in the Pacific Northwest, the residents of the once-prosperous but fictional Cold Rock, Washington have hit hard times since the closing of the mine, leaving behind miles of vacant tunnels underneath. Making matters worse, children have started to disappear over the years without a trace, and locals believe a mysterious figure in black that lives in the woods is responsible. One child, Jenny (Jodelle Ferland in a notable voiceless portrayal), even reports having seen the figure and made a drawing of him in her sketchbook. Folks at a diner dispute his existence with one man pointing out the obvious being the worst thing imaginable, further drawing the line between reality and the supernatural at the heart of Laugier's plot.
Jessica Biel stars as the town's widowed nurse Julia Dunning, whose husband was a much-admired and respected doctor everyone remembers with great regard. At this point in her movie career, Biel seems to be losing traction with mainstream audiences, not having done anything of genuine significance or worth remembering since 2008's 'Easy Virtue.' I don't see her taking top billing in this film as doing her any favors. Her performance as a woman still struggling with the death of her husband is rather excellent, switching between thoughtful caregiver to methodical and possibly psychologically disturbed individual in an instant. Her best moments are the exchanges with one distraught mother (Colleen Wheeler) desperately wanting answers to her son's disappearance. Unfortunately, her skills in front of the camera go to waste in a plot that not only drops the ball in a very massive way but also tries to salvage a mess with an absurdly idiotic political message on poverty.
Without digging too deep into the nitty-gritty, the script which was also written by Laugier comes with a terrifically promising mystery that surprises as it slowly evolves. Once Julia's son is kidnapped by an intruder dressed in black, the suspense builds to an all-time high as the world around Julia quickly unravels into a kind of Twilight Zone universe. Is the entire town hiding a dark, menacing secret that involves the children? Is Julia a mentally troubled woman who broke from reality soon after her husband's death? And why do Julia, Jenny and the nanny talk about the Tall Man like some kind of supernatural entity waiting for the children?
The characters obviously know the answers to these questions and move into action because of what they know. Viewers, on the other hand, are kept in the dark, perplexed by the conversations and whispers of others while also trying to piece it all together. Laugier does a remarkable job during all this, challenging his viewers to figure out the real mystery with Julia clearly at the center of it all. It then starts to fall apart when one possible answer and conclusion is followed by another. And another. And another. And yet, one more. The real question then becomes why something so ridiculously amateur and incompetent was made in the first place. The third act is the ultimate challenge as the minutes tick away waiting for the moment when it's all supposed to make sense.
But it never happens.
Instead, we're left to our own devices of understanding a strange political message that disgustingly justifies the kidnapping of children. An argument could be made that Laugier actually leaves us thinking about the question, but what's the point when the answer is already made pretty clear by the outcome of the last few minutes. With amazing, hauntingly beautiful photography by Kamal Derkaoui, 'The Tall Man' could have served as a creepy morality tale. The first half makes for an excellent mystery thriller, but with one twist after another, the final reveal is a discouraging, ineffectual, agenda-filled mess that's sloppily warranted by the rest of the plot.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Image Entertainment brings 'The Tall Man' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD-25 disc. It's housed inside a blue, eco-lite keepcase with a shiny slipcover and a postcard of Cold Rock, Washington. The main menu, which features the film's title in the center of the screen, comes with full-motions clips and music.
'The Tall Man' meanders onto Blu-ray with a mostly strong but also slightly troubled high-def video presentation.
Taken directly from an HD source thanks to the Red One camera system, the 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1) displays excellent detailing in the surrounding foliage and in every exterior shot of the near-deserted town Fine lines around the smallest objects are well-defined for the most part, and textures on the faces of actors are natural and revealing. Unfortunately, some shots are not quite as distinct as others, and there is some visible aliasing in few spots. The front grill of trucks speeding down the highway exposes a bit of moiré effects.
The cinematography is deliberately drained of color, creating a morose feel about the town, but primaries still come through and are cleanly-rendered. Contrast is also subdued but consistent with crisp whites, although highlights seem a tad hot. Black levels can be stronger, often looking grayish and murky, yet they're generally pleasing a majority of the time. It's worth noting, however, that several nighttime sequences with lots of heavy shadows look somewhat ugly and digital, revealing some minor crush and even a hint of banding.
Many will find little to complain about, especially when overlooking several of the trouble spots, but the transfer honestly comes with compression issues that shouldn't be ignored.
In the audio department, things improve dramatically with this highly impressive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
As would be expected, rears are used on several occasions to create a spooky atmosphere. Whether it's creaky noises heard upstairs, the sound of thunder and rain overhead, or the local wildlife singing in the trees, the effort pays off with little to complain about, filling the room with an ominous feel and enveloping the listening area convincingly. Meanwhile, a well-balanced channel separation and sharply-rendered dynamics generate a broad imaging with precise, intelligible dialogue reproduction. Although it should be noted, one conversation between Julia and her nanny seems pretty hollow and somewhat detached, but the lossless mix resumes back to normal after that. Bass is also pretty deep and responsive with a couple ultra-low moments just for good measure.
Supplements are nothing special.
French filmmaker Pascal Laugier makes his third full-length feature with 'The Tall Man,' a mystery thriller about the disappearance of children in a small mining community. Starring Jessica Biel with a strong performance, the movie pretends to ask important socio-political questions about the welfare of children, but it devolves into a frustrating mess with idiotic answers in its conclusion. The Blu-ray arrives with a generally pleasing but also troubled picture quality and an excellent, atmospheric audio presentation. With really nothing else to offer in the bonus department, this is a title for the curious, but a rental at best.