31 by 31 Challenge #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

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