Biel Takes on Terror in ‘The Tall Man’


Front Row Features Film Critic

“The Tall Man” has some tall problems, but this mostly psychological horror tale has one big thing going for it. If there’s a grading curve that awards suspense movies extra credit for unexpected endings, this one would be right up there, surprise-wise.

Jessica Biel stars as Julia Denning, a nurse who has become the town doctor by default in a barely surviving northwest mining community. Her beloved but dearly departed doctor husband used to have that job, and is described as the glue who held the place together. That was before most of the area’s jobs disappeared six years ago.

Things apparently have fallen apart considerably since then, both economically and morally. Now it’s the kind of place where Julia delivers a hidden-pregnancy baby whose father is the abusive boyfriend of the young mom’s mother. There’s also the matter of more than a dozen local children who have been abducted and never seen again. The mother of one of them, the dazed and shell-shocked Mrs. Johnson (Colleen Wheeler), has become a haunted and skittish vagrant.

The crimes are blamed on a boogeyman known as the Tall Man, a local legend with his own creepy doll-head festooned shrine in the woods. The only person who claims to have glimpsed the silent and hoodie-wearing monster is teenage Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), who has been mute since some prior unspecified trauma.

Not much more can be said about the plot without spoiling its unanticipated twists and odd turns. They don’t all make sense, but movies like this always can fall back on the excuse that the evil or insane aren’t always going to act rationally.

Biel’s character goes through several forms of hell in the movie, from having a child abducted to being dragged behind a speeding panel truck and getting attacked by a viciously toothy dog. This isn’t a graphic “torture-porn” movie, however, and there’s no nudity whatsoever, making its “R” rating seem largely unwarranted.

Biel’s performance is going-through-the-motions adequate but kind of blah, lacking the kind of wild-eyed, driven-to-the-edge intensity that would have made Julia more interesting and memorable. The same thing could be said about her role in the “Total Recall” remake released earlier this month. Even when she’s in full-action mode, Biel seems to be holding back.

The most interesting actor here is Stephen McHattie (“Watchmen,” “Immortals”) as the thoughtful and quietly professional lawman Lt. Dodd. The lines on his serious and self-assured face say more than any number of Biel’s blank expressions.

Director/writer Pascal Laugier (“Martyrs”) keeps the camera moving and includes more aerial and crane shots than most car commercials, a technique that draws attention to itself and seems too flashy for the grim material. Although shot in British Columbia, the movie effectively manages to evoke a Cascades version of white-trash Appalachia. The trailer park, cars and decaying businesses of what’s supposed to be Cold Rock, Washington, are in convincing states of disrepair and decay.

One good thing about the screenplay is that its flashback format ends up making sense story-wise. Most movies that follow an opening scene with something like “36 Hours Earlier” end up killing anything resembling suspense. Not here. Also, the movie’s unsettling and Trent Reznor-like score by Todd Bryanton definitely classes up the proceedings.

“The Tall Man” mostly comes up short, but there’s enough here to suggest how much better it could have been.