French filmmaker Pascal Laugier attempts a tricky bait-and-switch with genre conventions in “The Tall Man,” his English-language follow-up to 2008’s ultra-violent horror-thriller “Martyrs.” What begins as a fairly standard small-town frightpic morphs into a terrifying venture of a different kind: a botched stab at philosophical and sociological provocation. Despite a game performance from Jessica Biel in the surprisingly complex lead role, token theatrical exposure will be simply a formality following a domestic VOD premiere, and ahead of an already scheduled Sept. 25 DVD release.
Someone — or something — is stealing the children of Cold Rock, a Pacific Northwest enclave still suffering the economic aftershocks of losing its local mining industry. Dubbed “the Tall Man” by frightened parents, the shadowy figure snatches kids in the blink of an eye, attracting frenzied TV news reports while leaving a federal investigator (Stephen McHattie) and the local sheriff (William B. Davis) clueless about how to crack the case. In contrast to most of the dirt-poor residents, Julia Denning (Biel) runs the area’s medical clinic and lives in a sizable house isolated in the woods, but even she can’t escape the kidnapping spree when her young boy, David (Jakob Davies), is abducted from their home one night.
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No shrinking violet, Julia gives chase and demonstrates superhuman strength (or simply a mother’s protective instincts?) as she fights to rescue David. In one of the film’s few elaborate action sequences, Biel dangles from the back of a truck, wrestles with a ferocious dog and bursts through a window, all of it staged with ardor if not much tension.
But it’s shortly after this that Laugier drops his first major twist, and reveals that much of what we presumed to know about the characters may not be true. Here the film pivots from straightforward thriller into a more mysterious drama, and beefs up the screen time for mute trailer-park teen Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), who has been lurking on the sidelines and serving as occasional narrator.
Even if much of the action makes little sense in retrospect, Laugier clearly relishes playing with audience expectations, and skillfully parses out key reveals to command interest in the continuously evolving narrative. Welcome echoes of the work of Stephen King and TV’s “The X-Files” (on which McHattie and Davis were both memorable guest stars) increase suspicion that something supernatural is afoot, and Laugier keeps teasing that possibility until the very end.
Ultimately, though, horror fans looking for a few good scares (or the stomach-churning extremes of “Martyrs”) are likely to feel cheated, while those intrigued by the film’s themes of social class and child welfare won’t engage with the superficial and outlandish ways they’re incorporated here.
Biel’s committed turn earns respect for somehow holding onto the center of a character whose nature keeps shifting, while Samantha Ferris’ lived-in portrayal of Jenny’s paycheck-to-paycheck single mom is a supporting-cast standout. Tech credits are adequate, though the film’s visual merits were somewhat compromised by presentation via a projected DVD at the screening caught.