By Steve Greene | Criticwire March 14, 2012 at 7:45PM
In director Pascal Laugier's follow-up to his better-received 2008 film "Martyrs," "The Tall Man" stars Jessica Biel as Julia Denning, a nurse in a rural Washington town where children are systematically disappearing. Her attempts to uncover the children's whereabouts lead her into a town where she is anything but welcome and the inhabitants aren't too keen to help her in her search.
But some films are remembered not for their content, but for imparting a bit of extra-cinematic wisdom onto its audience. Scott Weinberg wrote of "The Tall Man" at FEARnet, "[it's] either one certifiably insane horror story / missing kids thriller, or it's one of the clearest examples of why one should always approach a new movie with as few 'expectations' as possible."
Whether those expectations center around the writer or director and their previous work, the acting talent involved or any other preconceived notions a viewer may have, it's clear that many critics had them before seeing "The Tall Man." Peter Martin self-diagnoses as much in his Twitch review, saying, "Admittedly, expectations may have played a stronger role than usual in my disappointed reaction…Laugier is clearly a filmmaker who knows how to create striking images and assemble action sequences with flair. This time, however, without incredibly bloody violence to distract, his limitations as a writer are even more apparent."
Drew Taylor's review at The Playlist singles out one particular flaw in the proceedings, one that may or may not have present in Laugier's earlier work. "You can tell what Laugier is going for in these early scenes – he's trying to build up a sustainable amount of atmosphere, mood, and tension," he explains. "But Laugier never gives any of the supporting players traits beyond "fat woman in diner," so instead of fully developed characters who, if the situation changed, could become viperous and cruel, we're just left with a bunch of actors playing nothing roles. They don't lend any reality to the situation and they certainly don't help maintain that atmosphere that Laugier is so desperately trying to establish."
As with many films at SXSW, much of what's worth discussing lies just beyond the Great Spoiler Threshhold, in Weinberg's estimation. But despite the shortcomings of "The Tall Man," he distills all the relevant by saying it's best to "forgo the plot synopsis, reiterate how impressive the performance by lead actress (and producer!) Jessica Biel actually is, and show some appreciation for a dark thriller that starts out as somewhat perfunctory, and then has the guts to twist the script in some odd, and potentially off-putting, directions."
If "The Tall Man" finds distribution outside Austin, perhaps a new wave of audiences will find some avenues of the film's redemption purely because they're not looking for it. Then again, that just might be another expectation.
Instant Twitterverse Reaction:
"The Tall Man executes a really good idea terribly." - Jack Giroux, The Film Stage/Film School Rejects
"For all you MARTYRS fans out there, the director continues his tradition with THE TALL MAN of beating women up. So good news for you." - Erik Childress, eFilmCritic.com
"The Tall Man leads all #SXSW films in stupid left turns, yawns, eye rolls & bored or anxious fidgeting. Awful." - Justin Monroe, Complex Magazine