Pascal Laugier’s film begins with wince-making close-ups of a traumatised Jessica Biel, her face battered and bloodied, having pieces of glass tweezered out of her wounds. After which the words, “36 hours earlier” flash up on screen. This device, a popular cliché in modern horror movies, is a way of giving us a violent teaser before retreating into calmer flashback and general character-establishing business, as if to say, Yes, we know there’s a shortage of bloody action here, but stay tuned, because as you’ve already seen, there is plenty of unpleasantness to come. “Right now, it has become a cliché to start with a chunk of climax – screaming, bloody people – then run that ‘two weeks earlier’ caption and show the same folks being happy and en route to danger to establish characters and story,” says Kim Newman, author of Nightmare Movies.
So just what did happen to this pretty and capable nurse to transform her into this sorry state? With memories of Laugier’s last film, Martyrs, still raw in my head, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out. The writer-director evidently has a thing about Passion of Joan of Arc-style close-ups of traumatised young women with facial grazes and droopy hair, but I’ve had a bellyful of horror movies in which women are stalked, assaulted, imprisoned, tormented and/or tortured. Been there, seen it a zillion times, and it doesn’t get any more fun with the passing years – it’s not challenging, it’s not clever, and tacking an intriguing metaphysical postscript on to the relentless subjugation and mortification of a young female victim, depicted explicitly and at extreme length, doesn’t stop me suspecting that the male director has maybe been enjoying his work a little too much. This isn’t a dig specifically at Laugier, by the way – it’s at Carl Theodor Dreyer as well.
Cold Water, we learn from a voice-over that isn’t Biel’s, is a small grey town about two hours’ drive from Seattle. It has gone downhill since the local mine was closed. Biel’s character is introduced delivering the baby of a trailer park teen, impregnated by her mom’s boyfriend. As if economic and social deprivation were not enough, the town’s children have been going missing, whisked away by “something so menacing and terrifying that people finally gave it a name” – The Tall Man. Aha, we think. Angus Scrimm from the Phantasm movies! But no. Perhaps, in this instance, Laugier would have been better advised to have come up with an alternative name for his bogeyman; his intentions are not in the tradition of Scary Movie prods and winks, and all he has done here is to trigger fruitless debate in the messageboards of imdb.com in which Phantasm fans vent their outrage.
But with his hulking, behatted form and evil-looking van, Cold Water’s Tall Man is a not-too-distant cousin of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s Child Catcher and The Creeper from Jeepers Creepers.
MINOR SPOILER OF PREDICTABLE PLOT DEVELOPMENT COMING UP! BUT THIS ONE IS IN THE TRAILER!
And of course the inevitable happens – one night this monster comes into Biel’s own house, ties up the babysitter and snatches Biel’s small son, David. She chases the van, wrestles with the bogeyman and his dog, gets hit on the head and stumbles around in the forest for what seems like an eternity before collapsing in the road. Which is where Lieutenant Stephen McHattie finds her.
Up to this point, there has been something a bit off. I’m not the only person who will have been thinking a) There is no way the writer-director of Martyrs is going to deliver the sort of generic bogeyman yarn we’ve all seen so many times. There has got to be a twist coming up. And b) Is it because the writer-director is a native Frenchman that some of the English dialogue is so strange, or did he intend it to be strange? For example, Biel says to her curly-headed son, “Guess what we’re having for dinner tonight! Brussels Sprouts!” What mother talks to her son like that?
And it’s round about here, at about the halfway mark, that the film goes bonkers.
Impossible to write more without MULTIPLE MAJOR SPOILERS, so read on at your peril…
There isn’t just a single twist – there’s a whole flurry of them, and I greatly enjoyed the way Laugier pulls the rug out from under our feet not once but three times, forcing us to see the characters’ actions in a new light every time, particularly since it makes sense of what I’d been thinking was strange behaviour, and also because the first twist on its own would be a pretty lame one. Please don’t read on if you want to enjoy this film, as knowing in advance what will happen will take a lot of the fun out of it (though I daresay “fun” is not a word Laugier meant to apply here – his intent is manifestly serious, which of course only makes the result all the more amusing for us dilettante sensation-seekers).
Twist Number One, which we’ve been expecting:
The lieutenant takes the traumatised Biel – not to hospital or the police station as you or I would have done, but to the local diner, where the townsfolk watch over her. While changing into clean clothes (this in itself is a very odd and unnatural piece of business – why would a seemingly friendly waitress say “Go get cleaned up” to a traumatised women?) she overhears a conversation and sees a photograph which suggests the entire town is involved in some sort of conspiracy involving the kidnapping of David. Whoah, we think. Child sacrifice to the Tall Man? Biel manages to escape, and they go out looking for her.
Twist Number Two, which we’re kind of expecting (there is still so much to be explained) though we have little idea what form it will take:
After a lifetime of watching Biel creeping along the corridors of some sort of abandoned factory (Laugier really should stop padding his material out like this – it’s not exciting, nor does it further the plot, it’s just generic wandering around) we learn the identity of the Tall Man. It’s David’s real mother! This is a real switcheroo – it turns out that Biel was the kidnapper all along., though it must be said that the earlier chasing-the-van scene made me think of Haute tension (aka Switchblade Romance) in which the heroine turns out to be the psychopath, so I can’t deny Biel turning out to be the kidnapper didn’t cross my mind.
Biel, helped by Jenny (the mute younger sister of the pregnant trailer park teen) gets David back and takes him back to her house, where she takes him into her basement. Townsfolk storm the house, Biel is arrested, her babysitter hangs herself and David is nowhere to be found. Biel looks all set for a lifetime in solitary confinement, but refuses to say what she’s done with the missing children. We and the townsfolk assume they’re dead, their corpses hidden somewhere in the disused mines that are accessible from Biel’s basement.
Twist Number Three – the cherry on the icing on the cake:
The children aren’t dead! As we find out when Jenny is kidnapped by the Tall Man, though it has already been hinted she has been hoping for this to happen, primarily to escape the attentions of her mom’s sleazy boyfriend. She is taken to a nice house in the big city. The film jumps forward and we learn she is no longer mute, is taking art classes and is now leading a comfortable middle-class existence, a long way from her mom’s sleazy boyfriend and the trailer park. David, too, has been adopted by a nice new well-off family, as have all the other missing children.
Yes, it’s an entire organisation dedicated to stealing small children from their deadbeat parents in a crappy small town and giving them to nice middle-class folks to bring up in comfortable surroundings with all mod cons – a sort of Fascist Adoption Agency staffed by folk who honestly believe they’re doing the right thing. Biel, it turns out, has sacrificed her freedom to keeping this altruistic set-up a secret. You would think there are easier ways to give children a decent start in life rather than scare them half to death, cause their loved-ones untold agony and devastate a community, but presumably Biel, her husband (The “Tall Man”) and their cohorts have found these other methods wanting. Also, could those cops be any more useless?
But that’s not the point. You can pick holes in it all you like, but this is an interesting Gone Baby Gone scenario which ends with a question-mark, inviting viewers to think about the implications of the story they’ve just seen. Is it enough for parents to be loving, or do they have to be wealthy as well? Does the bourgeoisie have the right to dictate to the lowlifes how they should be raising their offspring? Yes, of course, children should be relocated out of reach of their mothers’ abusive boyfriends, but isn’t there a way of doing that without consigning the mother – and possibly the child – to a lifetime of bereavement? And who’s to say the new parents won’t be abusive or horrible? and so on.
So it was a conspiracy after all – just not the one I was expecting. The Tall Man has a lot in common with Martyrs (which I still don’t like, though I respect it more now) in that only near the end do we learn the entire story has been engineered by a secret sect of people dedicated to the implementation of a barmy idea, no matter that it’s illegal, morally unsound and smacks of Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn programme. There’s even a slightly sinister matriarch-like figure, reminiscent of Mademoiselle from Martyrs, who greets Jenny when she arrives at the organisation’s safe house in the city.
I have read complaints that The Tall Man isn’t a horror movie – that Laugier has merely dressed social commentary up in horror movie trappings, with the implication that he has somehow cheated the viewer. I would contend, however, that it is very much a horror movie, and not just because, like so many horror films before it, it uses a story about a monster to smuggle subversive ideas past the casual viewer’s defences. It presents us with a bogeyman, then makes us think long and hard about who the bogeyman really is, both within the framework of the film itself, and then within the broader context of society.
Oh, and Jessica Biel’s rather blank acting style works perfectly here.
(I haven’t seen Laugier’s first feature, Saint Ange, but may add comments once I’ve watched it.)