Filmmakers have been venturing into the dark corners of Stephen King’s mind now more than ever. None more than Netlfix, whose particular obsession with the legendary author has brought us both 1922 and Gerald’s Game in recent years has brought up their follow up to their 2017 King adaptations to Fantastic Fest with In the Tall Grass, the horror novella written by King and his son, Joe Hill.
Written and directed by Cube director, Vincenzo Natali, Into the Tall Grass follows Becky and Cal DeMuth, played by Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted, as a devoted brother, Cal, drives his very pregnant sister across the country. Stopping at the side of the road, Becky hears the distant voice of Will Buie Jr’s Tobin Humboldt calling for help in the seemingly endless field of tall grass by the side of the road.
Natali’s no stranger to putting strangers into a strange place and terrorizing them. It’s how he got his start, check out The Cube if you ever get the chance. A decade later, Natali’s only gotten better at it.
Right from the start, Natali sets up a strong sense of unease that beautifully overwhelms Becky and Cal as they step into the field of tall grass. What Natali does best with the source material is that he picks and chooses his moments. Relying heavily on a talented cast to portray a lot of very real fears over shock value as they wander the grass. But when it comes to moments, Natali deliveries. Working with the unbelievably Craig Wrobleski, the cinematographer behind the Legion TV show, Natali creates the strangest sense of unease with some of the most original and beautiful shots of grass that I have seen in a long time. Combined with Mark Korven’s score, you truly get the sense that this grass is alive.
It’s a fantastic start that also hinders the film in the sense the story and premise elevate and actually increases the number of characters in the story. But this is all within the first 20 minutes as Natali doesn’t allow the storytime to gestate as we try to figure out exactly what the grass wants. The film sets up a brilliant first and second act of questions without answers. The problem is, the third act doesn’t really answer all the questions the first two acts were asking.
Ultimately, what Natali was adapting was a novella and he didn’t have enough for a feature film and the third act of the film truly shows this as the narrative and pacing that Natali is running with goes off in a lot of different directions. The most interesting sequences of the film are long done with by this point, Becky, Cal, and Travis figuring out how the grass works, Natali’s tricks to give the grass life, are particular stands outs.
There’s an interesting idea of the family dynamic that plays through the film with Laysla De Oliveira’s Becky and Avery Whitted’s Cal – two people who couldn’t possibly look less related to the other and Patrick Wilson’s Ross Humbolt’s family that really does a great job of humanizing the relationships these characters have between themselves and the relationships they form along the way. But the problem is with De Oliveira, Whitted, and Gilbertson.
Patrick Wilson is… well, Patrick Wilson, the man loves the character and makes any character, good or bad, enjoyable to watch. With Ross, Wilson chews on the scenery and naturally gives the character the same unease that Vitali has set up in that beautiful first act and he just runs with it.
Whitted reminds you a lot of a John Hughes-like character as he pushes his relationship with Cal and Travis. Oliveira gets the full weight of the grass on her shoulders as Natali pushes the idea that what the grass wants might be her. Against character actors as good as Buie and Wilson, she holds her own surprisingly well.
And then there’s relative newcomer, Will Buie Jr. as Ross’s young son, Tobin. For someone as young as Buie Jr. to not give any inch of the screen to a talent like Patrick Wilson, and not even breaking five feet tall yet, truly shows the talent this kid has.
Given the limitations of both the novella and the fact 98% of this movie takes place in a literal field of tall grass, Natali does a solid job telling this story. In the Tall Grass is 3 1/2 out of 5 stars because there’s a lot of good to enjoy, some decent acting and moments, but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity to elevate another adaption to the other Netflix King adaptations.
In the Tall Grass slowly turns from solid psychological horror film to generic horror film that will get lost in Netflix’s digital movie dump bin because Natali spends far too much time unnerving the audience over trying to connect with the audience to get the kind of payoff you expect from a Stephen King adaptation.