Synopsis – After hearing a young boy’s cry for help, a sister and brother venture into a vast field of tall grass in Kansas but soon discover there may be no way out…and that something evil lurks within.
My Take – Hot on the heels of the success of It: Chapter Two, we have been gifted yet another Stephen King adaption in the form of this Netflix film, which also marks their 3rd King adaption following Gerald’s Game and 1922, and, for what it’s worth, I think they should continue making more.
As we all know there are currently no shortage of films being adapted from legendary horror writer’s novels, however, for non-readers its best to clarify that this film is instead an adaption of 60 page novella co-written by King and his son, Joe Hill, an acclaimed writer on his own.
However, the biggest catch of the film is that it is being directed by Vincenzo Natali, the Canadian director who has previously worked on the 1997 thriller Cube, which also shares quite similar events of latter. In the sense, this one too revolves around a group of people trapped in a massive labyrinth with their only hope of escaping being to solve a mind-bending mystery.
While the novella consists of a lean and simple story that allows its shocking graphic violence to have maximum impact. Here, writer/director Vincenzo Natali expands what was once a simple narrative into a strange journey into the surreal, using the novella as a mere skeleton. Resulting in a film which is very entertaining and works as a good little creep fest that is flawed but plays well on the minimalist nature of the setup.
The story follows Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted), who are on a cross-country drive to San Diego. On their journey, they are forced to stop as Becky’s pregnant and still suffering from morning sickness.
But in the distance somewhere in the field of grass by the road, she hears a panicked child call for help. Becky and Cal wander in but can’t seem to find him, and eventually, they too are separated and trapped with another family: Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), his father Ross (Patrick Wilson) and Natalie (Rachel Wilson).
Meanwhile, after weeks with no news from Becky, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), her boyfriend and the father of her unborn child, goes searching for the two missing siblings and also falls into the same trap. Chaos soon reigns, with nothing ever quite making sense as the grass, and an ominous black stone at the center of the field, twists and warps the minds of everyone inside.
As I mentioned above, here, director Natali is back in pure Cube territory here and it’s an initially welcome return, spinning up a mystery involving children and pregnant women to further heighten the ordeal, and keeping you guessing as to what on earth is going on. The setup is incredibly simple, and yet, from even those very beginning moments, director Natali will give you the creeps.
The tall, imposing grass. The dark, wet, disgusting mud. The crackling noises and disparate sounds coming from all across the audio mix. It all adds to a setting that is as basic as basic gets, but still completely unnerving. While the film doesn’t have many jump scares but the whole thing is built to be unsettling, which it excels at.
In large part, that’s due to director Natali’s abundant use of extreme close-ups, which give drops of water, bugs, and the grass a massive, menacing presence. He also treats us to some great visual perspectives, the most memorable being when the siblings are separated and they jump up with their arms in the air to locate each other but are quickly introduced to the reality of their situation when their locations completely shift the second time they do it. In the distance, there’s an abandoned bowling alley that’s inexplicably at the edge of the grass and a creepy looking church that holds the grass over any kind of god.
Perhaps it’s to connect modern day religion to the ancient cult that worship the grass, but the film never does get into anything too deep. It’s a simple premise that keeps its themes surface level, no more profound than your average haunted hall of mirrors.
On top of the scares, King Fans should delight in the handful of nods to his previous adaptations. There’s a hint of Children of the Corn in the setting’s painful isolation and the unknown evil presence that stalks through the grass.
There’s an old car that resembles Christine in the church parking lot off the side of the road. Wilson’s dad character looks to suffer a similar descent into madness that befalls Jack Torrance in The Shining and Dr. Louis Creed in Pet Sematary. King also favors impossible to escape scenarios, whether it be from an evil car in Christine, a crazed fan in Misery, a supernatural killer clown in It or tied to a bedpost a la Gerald’s Game. A field of billowing grass feels right up his nightmare alley.
To his credit, director Natali does approach the plot of the film in quite a different way than the book. Once the field’s ominous powers are established, the focus completely shifts to Travis’ point of view, a character who isn’t a part of the book. As he becomes the film’s central arc, the film deviates from the looming terror and hopeless of the book, eventually ending the film on a completely different, more satisfying note.
However, the problem with all of this, though, is that while the interwoven narrative and scares are solid, the characters are never quite as interesting. Natali’s script is filled with backstory for all the main characters but it rarely amounts to more than bland exposition. The film’s emotional core lies with Travis and Becky, who prior to entering the grass is debating on whether or not to keep her baby.
On this point, the film stumbles as it dips into clichés about putting pregnant women and their babies in danger but remains unclear on its ultimate effect. It’s certainly meant to make the audience feel for them but their environment and plight is much more fascinating and so the characters never measure up. As a result, when things really do get their goriest and weirdest, there’s a detachment that keeps the film from being as impactful as it wants to be. The payoffs are good, but they’d be better if the characters were more dynamic.
The two young leads, Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted are decent enough as our leads but just don’t have the chops to get the material to the finish line. In comparison, Harrison Gilbertson has a more expressive arc, and manages to do well.
Rachel Wilson and Will Buie Jr. also add well to the mix. However, in the end it is Patrick Wilson, who steals the show, clearly reveling in his meaty, often hammy performance. His deranged expressions and unpredictable nature gives him everything he needs to be a fantastic villain. On the whole, ‘In the Tall Grass ‘ is an absurd yet entertaining horror adaption, which despite its flaws is genuinely frightening
Directed – Vincenzo Natali
Rated – R
Run Time – 101 minutes