Friday, June 7, 2013

The Tall Man: Fractured Fairy Tales

I recognize that my definition of horror is much looser than most people's, and that's mostly a conscious decision on my part. I don't like the idea that the themes and imagery with which horror films play should be prescriptively confined to a genre, nor do I like the way that genre classification is used to marginalize and delegitimize films along class lines. Horror belongs to everyone and everything, as far as I'm concerned.

One example of how this can be problematic is the occasional dissonance between a film and how that film is presented. One recent example might be Cherry Tree Lane, which is a well-acted, nuanced, utterly unsparing chamber drama about class divides told through the story of a home invasion. It's quite good and I'd recommend checking it out. However, the advertising makes it look like some kind of slasher film, which it really, really isn't. 

The Tall Man is another example - it's billed basically as a monster movie, but it really, really isn't. If anything, it's a fable or fairy tale. One could be forgiven going into The Tall Man for thinking it's going to be a monster movie - the premise suggests it, and it's directed by Pascal Laugier, who directed the excellent (and utterly monstrous) Martyrs. And fables and fairy tales sometimes have monsters in them, but they're not really the point. The point is what the monsters have to say about the world in which they exist.

Julia Denning is the closest thing the town of Cold Rock has to a doctor. Which is to say that she's a nurse, her deceased husband was the town doctor, and Cold Rock is a dying mining town with little to offer the people who remain. As the movie opens, she's delivering a child into the world - it's a problematic pregnancy, the child might not make it. The mother is in her teens, almost a child herself, and she's been brought to Julia because the nearest hospital is too far away, and the girl's own mother doesn't want to attract too much attention to the child. In addition to deep poverty and a rapidly dwindling population, the town of Cold Rock has a secret: One in awhile, a mysterious figure known as The Tall Man kidnaps a child from the town and spirits them away, never to be seen again. 

Not only are these people losing their way of life - their past and present - but they're losing their future as well. A pall of melancholy and dread hangs over the town like a toxic cloud. Julia is doing the best she can for these people - she genuinely cares about them and gets frustrated when they don't do the right thing, when they continue to make bad choices, to put their lives at risk. She has a child of her own and a friend who looks after him when she's gone. She's suffered loss of her own before, and she's trying to make it work in a town ruled by superstition and irrational beliefs, because these people have nobody else. 

And then, one night, The Tall Man comes and takes Julia's boy away from her.

What follows is a mad, headlong chase down one rabbit hole after another. The premise really is just the beginning, and the less you know about the story going into it, the better. That said, it isn't a monster movie, not in any conventional sense. It's beautifully shot - the decaying remains of a company town in the Pacific Northwest, grudgingly little sunlight pushing its way through the clouds, the warm golds of Julia's home, the shadows in the forest and the old mines, the cold, sterile light of hospitals and jails. Where these people are at any moment is telling us as much of a story as the events playing out before us, and those events tumble and spill and upend each other at every turn. As in Martyrs, Laugier does an excellent job here not just of communicating the pain and sadness with which these people live, but also forcing us to question our understanding of the world in which these people live over and over again. Nothing is what it seems, but everything is what it seems at the same time.

The Tall Man is a fable, a story about how and why things are the way they are, and how they should be. Julia's journey keeps her (and us) off-balance every step of the way, and though in the end we know what has happened and why, how we're supposed to feel about that is left hanging in the air, the last lines of the film a question, inviting us to ask ourselves what it is we've just witnessed.

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