Pascual Laugier made a splash on the international film scene in 2008 with his rapaciously brutal horror epic Martyrs. It was one of the most controversial films of the year. It was also a film attempting to reach for something much more than the average gore soaked fare it was lumped in with by many critics. Whether or not it managed to grasp what it was reaching for is largely subjective, based on what exactly the viewer was bringing into the film. (Note: In the interest of both transparency and to let readers know what I thought of the film, my review for Martyrs can be found here, and I can also tell you it made my list of the fifty best horror films of the decade and the list of the seventy-five best films of the decade. I'm an enthusiastic fan.) Laugier was lauded and lambasted, in classic faux-outrage fashion, for the films gore, it's graphic depiction of violence and it's general idea. He did not develop an immediately warm and cozy relationship with either the film press or the critical community.
With his English language debut The Tall Man (originally and more aptly titled The Secret), Laugier makes one thing very clear. He's not interested in making standard horror films. In what might be a feat of imagination in today's film and general media environment, he may have also developed a new storytelling structure or a new formula. Martyrs and The Tall Man, have their basic structure in common, but the films are extremely different in every other way.
The Tall Man is going to have a tall mountain to climb. It has to face it's directors reputation, which can help attract an audience (though possibly not the audience for this particular film) and help repel an audience (possibly the exact audience for this film). It's also going to have to overcome the fact that the marketing materials are portraying it as something it absolutely isn't. If this film does catch on, and finds an audience, there are going to be a lot of disappointed people out there. The expectations they come into the film with will be completely dismissed. The story and structure of the film don't lend themselves easily to marketing because giving the audience too much information ahead of time is going to ruin the experience for them. If they are going to appreciate it at all, audiences are going to enjoy The Tall Man because of the journey of discovery it takes them on. By the time the film ends, it's not at all what it's beginning suggested it was going to be.
In comparison to Martyrs, The Tall Man is a much more conventional film. There's very little graphic violence and the gore is kept to a minimum. The gorehound audience that reveled in that element of Martyrs are going to walk out of the theater sorely disappointed. Laugier demonstrates he can provide suspense, narrative and thematic tension as he can pin point the audiences threshold for outright disgust. The first act set up, a woman hunting for her son in a decrepit mining town whose children have been disappearing regularly, has a few shaky moments and Jessica Biel comes across as slightly wooden in a few different moments. Her portrayal of the character and that woodenness are explained as the film progresses, but in the first twenty to twenty-five minutes, it does present a problem. Part of what makes a film work is essentially that people forget that they're watching a film and they get lost in the narrative and the world the film is presenting. It's an understandable, and actually logical choice, it's risky though, and luckily, when the necessary exposition is over and the film begins it's journey in earnest, it's still able to engage deeply enough for viewers to take hold of the character and her dilemma.
Laugier deserves a heaping amount of praise for the fact that he has both written and directed a film that few audience members are going to be able to predict once it really begins. What seems to be a straightforward horror film of either the supernatural or slasher sub-genre's becomes something much more thematically and philosophically rich as it unfolds and the minutes tick by. Most of us have seen dozens of genre films centered around a parent trying to recover their child, either from some goblin, demon or other closet monster to serial killers, child molesters and human traffickers. The majority of those films, no matter how well they may be made, follow a similar, relatively straightforward formula. Laugier is completely aware of this, and about half way through the film, begins to organically turn that formula inside out without having made the viewer feel like they've either just been tricked or that he is somehow cheating. We're presented with a new supposition about the film and a new perspective on what it is the characters we're watching are actually trying to accomplish. It works better here than in the majority of films that try something similar, because it's handled with as much skill as it is, from both a script and directing standpoint.
The result is a sense of having been completely cut from the moorings of where the film began, and having to question exactly where we, as the audience stand in relation to any loyalty to these characters. Impressively, Laugier doesn't stop there, he keeps going, and for fans of suspense, surprises and intelligently, elegantly constructed moral challenges, The Tall Man is an unusual treat.
It's in this way that The Tall Man most resembles Martyrs. Both films are concerned with a certain ethical dilemma, a moral challenge to put to the audience. Fortunately for everyone who will see the film, Laugier has no interest in preaching. In this way, the film has a certain moral ambiguity that was lacking in Martyrs. As that film concludes, the audience may be deeply surprised, unsettled and unsure of what to make of the motivations of the characters, but most will be completely at ease with the degree to which they identify with and sympathize with them. The Tall Man is constructed specifically to rob viewers of even that certainty. Like his previous film, Laugier seems occupied with the nature of suffering, the solutions we attempt to impose on it's existence, and the moral and ethical questions that discussion presents. Whether intentional or not, this film also presents certain questions about extremism in the pursuit of those solutions as well. It's all done in a very, very different way than Martyrs was, but it is of equal if not higher quality where it's storytelling and narrative are concerned. Martyrs relied on it's depictions of brutality to ask those questions, where The Tall Man relies on the audiences own moral convictions to create the kind of maelstrom that produces those questions as a result of what the film is portraying. The questions at the heart of this film are also in many ways, much more timely and much more concrete than those presented by Martyrs, and in that way, they're much less likely to be lost in the shuffle of some other concern (say, calling for Laugier to be run out of film making). The Tall Man in some ways seems like an answer to the his critics, as if to say, "Well, I've now done none of what you accused me of before, and I'm still asking the same questions. Do you have anything constructive to say?" Those questions being less opaque this time around, are going to have to be dealt with by anyone considering themselves to be of the "serious" variety of critic, unless they take some other tack in attempting to dismiss The Tall Man entirely, which would be a hard trick. The guardians of the moral good aren't going to be able to hide behind blood and guts this time.
With all of that being said, the film is suspenseful enough, and just plain well made enough to keep general audiences engaged as well. Chances are relatively good there will be some percentage of the audience who are going to take it to task for taking itself too seriously, but that's less the films fault than it is the preference of the audience. For those who enjoy films that can achieve both a Hitchcock like suspense while also being adept at presenting complex moral issues in interesting new ways, The Tall Man will most definitely be an interesting, entertaining and thought provoking experience.
Pascual Laugier is shaping up to be one of the most singularly confident and iconoclast voices of his generation. Horror fans are one day going to look back and say, "He started in horror films, you know," as they do now with so many different directors and actors who have become household names. Laugier may not make horror films forever, which is good. Talent like his shouldn't ever be confined that way. As a fan and long time participant in the horror community though, I hope that even when he decides to take the trek into some other genres, he occasionally finds his way back. Horror films as thoughtful and well constructed as his have been are so extremely rare, it's good to know there is someone working in film today who can bring this level of quality to them with some degree of regularity.