The Tall Man

She took the trash out of the trailer
★★★
☆
Released: 
2012
Director: 
Pascal Laugier
Starring: 
Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, Stephen McHattie, Samantha Ferris
The Setup: 
Some mysterious guy is kidnapping kids.
Discussion: 

There I am at my parent's house in Venice, Florida, where I find myself without WiFi, and alone after 9pm, as they've both gone off to bed. This is available on Netflix, and I recall it getting fairly decent review when it was out, and receiving positive mentions later. And it kind of sounds like a mixture of straightforward horror movie with spooky folk tale a bit like Mothman Prophecies, so I'm on board. We open with titles telling us that 800,000 kids go missing each year, and 1,000 of them vanish without a trace.

We then join our heroine Jessica Biel as Julia, all beaten up in a police office, someone telling her that they "haven't found him." Then--36 hours earlier! Are you a little tired of this device where we have to start in the middle of some "excitement," then go back to start the story in its normal place? I know I am. Anyway, we are in the town of Cold Rock, Washington, where the scenery is beautiful and the white trash is bountiful. Or at least this movie makes out. We join three white trash ladies who are speeding down the road, one of them about to deliver a baby. They are accompanied by Trailer Trash Mom (TTM) and mute Jenny. They go to see Biel as Julia, and she delivers the baby, then, a few days later, goes to see how it's doing, only to find that TTM has sent the girl and baby away, both to save them from the Trailer Trash Abusive Boyfriend (are there trailer trash boyfriends that aren't abusive? I'm just asking) and from... The Tall Man.

Tall Man, you ask? Apparently there is a local legend of this rather towering fellow who steals children, and all of a sudden we go into a sort of documentary-style sequence where people are saying that their kids simply vanished, and people are giving legends of the Tall Man, and none of the kids are ever found, then suddenly the music dials up the excitement and we go into a credit sequence (a bit late, but...) that has overhead shots of farms and trailer parks and places the credits as though they are laying on the ground. It's pretty awesome, although unfortunately it looks just the tiniest bit cheap. I bet if they spent ten more dollars they could have got it looking the smidge better it would have taken to really carry it off. Anyway, back to Julia.

She stops into the local diner, where there is the requisite warm, overweight waitress and typical array of truck drivers and local cops and suchlike. This one investigator comes in and announces that he's on the trail of the tall man. Then an insane redheaded woman, whose child has been taken by the Tall Man, comes by, and Julia, being our wonderful, warmhearted heroine, goes out to offer her a cup of coffee like a decent person, but the redhead runs away. Julie then goes back to her giant gorgeous house, as is required by the Charming Rural Heroine Act of 1968, where she greets her live-in but-totally-not-lesbo assistant Christine, and adorable son David. There are pictures on the wall that imply (though not strongly enough, as we shall see) that Julia had a doctor husband and that the both of them did peace work in distant underprivileged countries.

Christine presses drinks and Julia, who has had such a hard day, and they both get wasted. Julia falls asleep, and wakes in the middle of the night. She stumbles downstairs, and, in perhaps the best moment in the movie, the light of the fridge illuminates the bound and gagged sight of Christine on the kitchen floor. She's untying Christine when who should run out the front door with David but--Jeff Goldblum! No, silly, Goldblum was the Tall GUY, and this one is the Tall MAN. Julia runs after him! He speeds off in a giant truck, but Julia jumps on the back and rides it down the road, like some sort of unstoppable mama Terminator.

SPOILERS > > >
So you're thinking "Okay, she'll fall off, the Tall Man (TM) will escape with the kid, and the rest of the movie will be her hunting to get the kid back." But then... she doesn't fall off. And she eventually stops the truck, goes around the front, sees David and... receives a severe beating from the TM, and is tied up in back with a really pissed-off looking dog. That dog REALLY does not look nice. Then Julia escapes, bursts in from the back, and is strangling the TM while he's trying to drive (I would have disabled the dog first, but I'm not a desperate Mom), and ends up crashing the truck. By the time she has crawled out the back, the TM has walked off with the boy. Then you're like "Okay, NOW she's going to go home, regroup, and the rest of the movie will be her hunting down the TM," but NO, dang it if she doesn't get up and start running off into the woods! Mute Jenny, by the way, is on hand, and sees the TM. By now it's becoming more apparent that this movie is not going to follow your conventional structure, and is going to keep you guessing, for better and worse. Eventually Julia receives another beating and is found by the cops, who take her back to the diner, where seemingly the entire town is gathered.

The gregarious owner tells her to go in back and clean up. She does, and soon finds that the owner is keeping a kind of shrine to the missing kids with candles and shit, and a big framed picture of Julia's son at the center! Meanwhile, a guy is peering in the window, comes around the front, and tells the assembled crowd "She found the picture." Then the whole crowd gets up and starts going in after her! And you're like "WTF??? Is this some sort of Wicker Man-type thing where the whole town is in on it, and it's some sort of town-wide secret?" BUT, Julia has escaped!

Then the sheriff drives out to the old abandoned, umm, apartment-thing, or something, and--guess who's in the back seat? That would be Julia. She hides until he leaves, and heads inside, where she creeps around and everything is spooky, and suddenly--she sees her son! And then sees--the crazy redhead woman! Holy shit--SHE was the Tall Man! She's crazy because she lost her child, and now she's stealing children! And she clobbers Julia.

So Julia wakes, all tied up, while you might be saying "Ummm, there's 48 minutes of movie left--WHERE is it going to go from here?" But get ready to have YOUR world violently ripped asunder by the shocking truth that might just place you in hospice care for 7-12 days (BIG-ASS spoilers here, too, by the way). The redhead, named Mrs Johnson, by the by, says SHE is David's mother, and JULIA stole him from her, and brainwashed him to call her Mom, and she had to kidnap him back. She couldn't believe it when Julia offered her coffee, as if she's going to accept coffee from the very woman who kidnapped her son, fucking game-playing bitch! And, what's more, she told everyone in the diner who did it, and that's why they were all there when she went to steal back David, and also why the proprietress has a little shrine in the back room. And furthermore, she alleges, Julia IS. THE. TALL. MAN.

Still, you're like "No. Julia? The heroine? No. The good doctor who cares about white-trash babies? Nah, couldn't be. Julia? Played by Jessica Biel? No. She's not the Tall Man. That woman--she's just crazy." Then--POW! Julia knocks out the crazy redhead and steals back her son! And there's a showdown, but Jenny, the mute girl who seems to be everywhere at once, helps her escape and return home. She entrusts David to Christine, and then goes up and locks herself in her room. Soon an angry mob is at her door, and so are the police, and... well, nice of them to get let her spend a whole night in peace before breaking in to bring her out in the morning. They see that Christine has hung herself, and take Julia in to the station.

Julia is interrogated, but says nothing. Investigators find that the house is built over a mine, and the basement has a secret passage that leads down there, and comes out deep in the woods. Meanwhile you're like "So wait, Julia IS the Tall Man? David's really NOT her son?" and the movie just continues. Then they bring Mrs. Johnson (redheaded mama grizzly) in to talk to her, thinking she might open up. She does, admitting that she did indeed snatch the kids, because she just can't stand to see innocent kids raised by total trash, and end up in sad lives of abuse and alcoholism, so she steals them. Johnson asks if all the kids are dead, and Julia says they sure are. So now we know.

Now we cut to Trailer Trash Mom and Trailer Trash Boyfriend, who is abusive toward mom, causing mute Jenny to be sad. Then Jenny is kidnapped, and driven into the city. I actually couldn't figure out exactly which city it was, but it's not Seattle. There Jenny is introduced to a blonde woman, and told she'll be living here now. Sharp eyes will realize that the guy helping her is Julia's husband, the guy previously glimpsed in photos with Julia (but barely enough to really recognize him). Then we flash several months forward, and see that Jenny is now healthy and middle class, and speaking now. She's out one day and sees David, happily playing with his new mom. So you see, the kids aren't actually dead, but relocated and placed with middle-class parents, where they grow up happy and healthy. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

Hmmm, okay. So the movie is making a statement, that might not be all that palatable, that certain parents are not worthy of raising their own kids, and those parents are uniformly of the lower class. The answer is to put them in the hands of middle-class parents, whereupon all their problems are solved and everything turns out peachy. This is a bit of a harsh departure from the usual "we're poor, but we got love" mindset that holds the lower classes as warm and folksy down-home folk that have their priorities in place and are ideal for raising well-centered kids with firm Christian values, saying instead that the poor are just trash and kids are better served by parents who can get them outfits from Baby Gap and buy educational toys and suchlike.

Now, I'm all for movies that go off in unexpected directions, and have unconventional structures. But they run a risk, demonstrated in this case by long periods in which the viewer has no idea what's going on. In this case the film starts as one movie, then starts becoming another movie, the shift being so unconventional that it leaves you wondering for a good long while. Yes, your questions are based on movie conventions, and that this movie isn't following them, but... at the same time, it takes a while to realize what this movie IS. And that long period of watching without having a firm sense of what's happening can decrease involvement, and lead to a somewhat detached experience, rather than being gripped and on board for the ride.

The other thing is that as the big revelation comes at the halfway point, leaving the rest to simply explain what we've seen, which can also have a deflating effect. I feel a bit sheepish, as my complaint is that this movie threw me off by not following genre conventions, when, as surely you know, I'm supposed to be all open and resistant to convention and perhaps a tinge avant-garde while also being devilishly sexy, but... honestly, I spent the majority of this movie saying "Where is this going? What's going to happen for the remainder of the running time if we resolve all of this now? They're not really going in this direction... are they?" Which means I was not involved in the story of the characters. But you know, maybe I'm just conventional. Maybe I'm old and boring. Maybe I've become the enemy. I went on IMDb expecting to see some complaints, and was surprised to find it regarded as fit to sit alongside Citizen Kane.

Regardless, awesome to see Jessica Biel again, and I dig that rather than vanish, she has chosen to just head into smaller, interesting roles. And I appreciate that the movie was unconventional, and it actually has a controversial point to make. Maybe if I watch it again, expectations off, I'll find it more cohesive and gripping. I recommend watching it, for sure, but my experience was one of distance, confusion and discombobulation.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it is at least interesting. You might enjoy it more knowing to put your expectations on pause.