The small town of Cold Rock, Washington—the bleak setting for Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man—has plenty of problems. After the closing of the mine that had been the town’s primary source of employment, Cold Rock has been beset with economic hardship, suffering a lack of resources and rapidly diminishing prospects for its residents. There’s less to go around and people aren’t sure what to do next. Also, the town’s kids keep disappearing—from the streets, front yards, even their own bedrooms. Theories abound. Child molester! The devil! Or maybe it’s the Tall Man, Cold Rock’s resident figure of urban legend: a mysterious man rumored to carry children with him into the woods, after which the boys and girls are never seen again.
Nurse Julia Denning (Jessica Biel)—who isn’t originally from these parts—doesn’t believe in urban legends. She’s the only medical practitioner left in Cold Rock after her husband, the town doctor, died several years ago. Yet still she heroically delivers a baby without proper equipment, performs house visits out of concern for the family’s circumstances, and then admirably offers coffee to a grieving mother outside a diner. Later, at home, she nurtures a young boy who she clearly loves. In short, she’s the antithesis of Cold Rock: a caring, generous figure persevering in an atmosphere otherwise devoid of hope. Later that same night, the boy we’ve seen her lovingly bonding with is abducted by a masked figure. So, naturally, she gives chase.
What follows is a whirlwind of events building an intricate mystery out of all that we’ve taken for granted so far, eventually culminating in a philosophical stalemate that actually satisfies rather than frustrates. The kidnapper, of course, isn’t the Tall Man, but that doesn’t mean the Tall Man doesn’t exist. Very quickly we realize that Julia isn’t who she seems, that small towns do indeed keep secrets, and that tall tales aren’t so tall when viewed from a distance. Various tropes are deconstructed and challenged: a small town’s suspicion of outsiders; country bumpkins keeping their struggle and rage to themselves, but taking it out on others; the reliance on the supernatural or the mythical to explain a very real phenomenon; and the desperate measures a woman will take to protect her children. Though the film wears its genre trappings on its sleeve, rather than in its heart, the readily apparent tropes speak to something deeper.
The idea of Cold Rock, and all that it represents in terms of class and opportunity in America, is central to the unwinding of the film’s tense, provocative conclusion: How inextricably are we tied to where we come from? Who decides if we deserve better, and if we deserve it, how do we actually get it? “The system is broken,” says one character in a pivotal monologue about hope and limitations, a seemingly endless cycle of defeat in which people always want more without knowing how to get it. Maybe Cold Rock is broken, or maybe it’s just lost, but the film deftly explores the state of the town in the context of a piece of the world struggling to keep from being left behind. What was the future actually holding for the children of Cold Rock, anyway? The Tall Man illustrates the problem of class mobility with a dark, troubling premise that holds a harsh light up to our own assumptions and expectations through a process of revising what we thought we saw—and, in doing so, the film asks how much else might be blurry at first glance.