Unsettling on many levels, "The Tall Man" starts as a creepy thriller but features an unexpected twist — into sociological horror.
Not content with the "Scream" series approach of mocking genre conventions, writer-director Pascal Laugier pushes the chiller toward genuinely new territory.
That may be more familiar in sci-fi noir: soylent green is people you know. But "The Tall Man" comes to life in an almost documentary realistic setting, the hardscrabble town of Cold Rock in the American Northwest. As the narrator tells us, local families were getting by until the mine closed down. Now, the whole place could use a coat of paint and regular trash collection.
A brief, effective opening scene only partially sets the stage for what's to come. Police hustle a bruised and bloodied woman from a mine entrance, and one orders that it be cordoned off. What's the use, an officer asks the local sheriff, since there are so many other shafts?
"Just make it look good," snaps Sheriff Chestnut.
The fact that he's played by William B. Davis, "the smoking man" from "The X-Files," helps the idea of conspiracy settle like mist over the dark woods. The State Police-type giving the orders, Lt. Dodd, is Stephen McHattie, recently seen as a sinister preacher in the spooky "Haven."
But "The Tall Man" belongs to Jessica Biel, who is in almost every scene as that worse-for-wear woman, Julia Denning. The movie quickly jumps back 36 hours to show in a slam-bang scene of another sort. An older, oversized sedan slaloms through the streets. As it skids up a run-down building, three overwrought females tumble out, yelling for Julia.
She quickly sizes up the situation and, despite her doubts, soon is struggling to deliver a baby on a makeshift table in her free clinic, which seems to be a converted, and ancient, school. Tracey, the teen mother's mother, unleashes the tale: her live-in boyfriend must have knocked up the girl, while she, of course, was in the dark.
Another moment, and we are watching Julia administering CPR, trying to save the infant, but seen through a glass window distorted almost to opacity. This allows the scene to play in heart-stopping intensity while also showing that even in better times, Cold Rock could never quite afford good panes of glass.
By the time Julia calls on the family a few days later, Tracey (Samantha Ferris) has already bundled her wayward daughter and unwanted grand-daughter off to relatives in Seattle. After a run-in with the boyfriend, Julia sticks around to spend time with Tracey's remaining child, Jenny (Jodelle Ferland). Jenny has trouble speaking, apparently because she was traumatized by the abduction of her younger brother.