Review: In The Tall Grass Tries So Hard to Be Good, but Is Middling at Best
Two and a half out of five weird abandoned churches.
I can’t say for sure whether or not I liked In The Tall Grass, Netflix’s adaptation of a story by Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill. It’s messy and strange and plays tricks on the audience. On the other hand, I appreciate a film that goes for broke in the weird department, especially in the horror genre. While it’s not quite as good as some of the other King offerings out there, In The Tall Grass won’t be making any “worst of” lists, either, which might be worse overall. A middling film is just that: a middling film.
The story follows a group of people lost in a field of—you guessed it—tall grass. There’s Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted), a sister and brother traveling to San Diego who stop to help a young boy they hear in the field. There’s Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), Becky’s boyfriend, who comes looking for a missing Becky. Then, there’s the Humboldt family: mother Natalie (Rachel Wilson), son Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), and father Ross (Patrick Wilson). The small cast is drawn into the hellish grass and soon finds that nothing is as it seems.
Director Vincenzo Natali and cinematographer Craig Wrobleski do an excellent job crafting a claustrophobic environment. The field seems both incredibly massive and achingly small, with nowhere to run. As Becky and the others become more and more lost, with stranger and stranger things happening, you find your skin crawling as if the grass itself is next to you and brushing against your skin. Visually, the film is fascinating to watch, with the grass dominating the frame.
Performance-wise, it isn’t bad, either. Wilson, of course, shines as Russ. Between Insidious and The Conjuring franchise, he’s emerged as a horror star, and this time he gets to have some serious fun with the role. There’s more to Russ than meets the eye, and Wilson rises to the challenge with aplomb. De Oliveira also gives a tortured performance as Becky and really throws herself into the physical nature of the role later in the film.
But the problem is is that the characters are underwritten as all get out. I haven’t read the original story yet, so I don’t know how much Natali had to work with, but the characters here are rather undercooked. Becky and Travis’s relationship feels forced, and Cal and Becky also don’t quite feel like siblings. There are threads of their relationships that are hinted at but never picked up. Even Russ feels like half a character.
The film also doesn’t quite feel complete in the mythology. An atmosphere can drive most of a film, but not the entire thing. While I don’t think it needed to explain exactly what the tall grass is and what it wants, it needed to give us some context for the weirdness of it all. At the end, I had more questions than answers, which isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case left me feeling disoriented, and not in the way that I think the filmmaker wanted us to be.
Mess and weirdness aren’t necessarily bad marks for a horror film. I’d rather see a film aim high with ambition than play it safe, but here, there’s no real payoff. There seem to be countless branches where the story could have gone that might’ve had more answers, but ultimately, they opted to go with an ending that both plays it safe and is endlessly confusing. How exactly do the mechanics of the film’s timeline work?
I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I still had fun watching and trying to guess what would happen next, but it never quite rises to being a “fun” film to watch or even something I’d want to rewatch. King and Hill originally wrote this story as a novella, and maybe it would have worked better as an episode of an anthology TV series or a short film, rather than a full-blown feature. Stretching the material to fit a longer runtime did not serve it necessarily well, even if it makes me want to seek answers in the pages of the novella.
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