If you were familiar with the “Slenderman” mythos and you saw the trailer for the new Jessica Biel horror film The Tall Man, you might think the latter was inspired by the former.
You’d be wrong, however, as I discovered this weekend when I went to North Hollywood to see the movie in its limited release.
The two share similarities, though. The Slenderman steals children; the Tall Man steals children. Both seem to live in the woods and plague small towns. Both seem to disappear into the night and are described more as “entities” than as people.
However, The Tall Man, despite its riff-sounding title, isn’t a take on the Slenderman mythos, and it’s really not even a horror movie. I’m not sure what it was. But it was definitely weird.
It’s really hard to discuss the movie without spoiling pretty much everything. If you want to see it, you should avoid the rest of this post. I’m going to be vague but I’ll pretty much ruin everything anyway. The Rotten Tomatoes page for the movie gives a pretty reasonable set of takes on it (although overall I think the negative viewpoints have it right), if you want more non-spoilery info.
First up, the big misstep of the movie is that it’s not a horror film. It pretends to be, to its detriment, for the entire first act. The result is a draggy delay of information dissemination to the audience that’s an attempt to make the twists more twisty — but it ends up feeling a lot like The Village, an elaborate misdirection that isn’t an intriguing rethink of the material, but an annoying prank someone played on the audience.
What’s totally interesting to me is that the movie is actually…pro-child-kidnapping. Kind of. Maybe. It actually starts to ask some sociological questions about poverty and child-rearing, and whether people in such circumstances are the best parents for their children. The question itself is somewhat sociologically bold, I guess — seems like you need brass balls/ovaries to suggest kidnapping people’s kids because they’re crappy parents could potentially be positive.
And sure, the mom with the drunk boyfriend who she can’t seem to cut loose (and who got her 17-year-old daughter pregnant) is the kind of person that actually exists, to some degree, and the cycle of poverty and bad decisions exists also. But even though the movie explores the concept in depth and with some fairness, there’s at least some underlying current that presents the idea that poor folks’ kids would be better off with benevolent rich benefactors to take care of them instead of their actual parents. We all should have grown up as Bruce Wayne’s ward, but maybe without the crime-fighting.
The Tall Man balances this view against the emotional trauma wreaked by the child abductions and the horror and pain it causes for the people involved (including the children who are supposedly better off), which allows the audience to get both sides of the issue. That the subject matter is challenging is nice, but I still struggle to understand where the idea for this script might even have come from, or how one could sit down and explore it without feeling all… icky. It’s hard to imagine the conversations that had to have gone into the making the movie — there were probably a lot of people crossing their arms and narrowing their eyes while others said things like, “Yeah, I mean, they get kidnapped, but at least they’re not getting murdered or something.”
I’d almost recommend the movie just because of its weirdness of subject matter and the presentation it chooses to convey it. Then again, however, The Tall Man is infuriating, like, most of the time. You really never understand what’s going on and the movie delights in giving you half the information that all the characters in the room have — even the stupid ones who don’t know what’s really going on. And for all the child-kidnapping questoin-asking, it never makes a whole ton of sense.
The biggest disappointment for me, really, was the fact that the horror elements of the movie are a bait-and-switch and never pay off, though. While sticking with the horror film being built in the first act would lead to something that was probably pretty basic and expected, adding them for no other reason than to confuse the audience is just mean. Despite its marketing, The Tall Man is not scary. It has atmosphere, but in the end it’s a drama that wants to ask its Big Sociological Question.