In the Tall Grass has suitably creepy moments peppered throughout, but its overall narrative lacks cohesion and can be confusing at times.
Premiering at this year's Fantastic Fest, In the Tall Grass is Hollywood's latest Stephen King adaptation. The famous author's works have been brought to the screen for decades, and more recently Netflix has taken a particular liking to King's tales of suspense (see: Gerald's Game, 1922). This time, the streaming service is bringing King's 2012 novella (which he co-wrote with his son, Joe Hill) to life, hoping it can become the latest in an ever-growing line of successful King adaptations. However, the results here are a bit mixed. In the Tall Grass has suitably creepy moments peppered throughout, but its overall narrative lacks cohesion and can be confusing at times.
In the Tall Grass begins with siblings Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal DeMuth (Avery Whitted) embarking on a road trip together. With the pregnant Becky feeling nauseous, they pull over so she can regroup. While the car is stopped, Becky and Cal hear a young boy, Tobin Humbolt (Will Buie, Jr.) crying for help in a grassy field, saying he and his parents are lost. Becky and Cal decide to do the right thing and search for the Humbolts, but they soon discover this is no ordinary field and they've entered a dangerous maze where there's no means of escape.
The film is at its strongest in the opening act, when director Vincenzo Natali (who also wrote the script), wastes no time in establishing an aura of dread and uneasiness. He taps into the basic and relatable fear of getting lost in a long and winding maze, putting viewers on edge just minutes into the movie. In the Tall Grass essentially operates like a bottle episode of a TV show, with a majority of the action taking place in the field. But even with the limited locations, the film is never visually boring. Natali impressively finds different ways to photograph the environment, allowing the titular tall grass to feel like a real, organic threat. Bolstered by Craig Wrobleski's cinematography, In the Tall Grass is very nice to look at, making the most of its constraints.
Sadly, In the Tall Grass loses steam as it goes on. Drawing from the novella, Natali was forced to make alterations and additions to the source material in order to get the film to feature length, and it's here where he struggles. In particular, the characters are never the most engaging, even with Natali's attempts to flesh out the narrative. For the most part, they work as vessels for the audience to experience the plot vicariously through, but story-wise there isn't much there. Dynamics like the animosity Cal feels towards Becky's estranged boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) are generic and don't add much overall. Natali also doesn't clearly convey the rules of the supernatural field, leaving viewers in a position where they need to piece things together to make sense of what's going on. This isn't to say Natali should have held audiences' hands and over-explained the necessary details, but some will definitely be scratching their heads wishing for a little more information.
In terms of performances, the clear standout is Patrick Wilson as Ross Humbolt, who has a gleeful time chewing up scenery, no matter if he's called to be just a charming guy (who may or may not be trustworthy) or something a little creepier. At times, it may feel like Wilson's acting in a different movie than his co-stars, though that could be attributed to the direction of the story and how it evolves. The rest of the cast, by comparison, is solid and effective, but largely unremarkable. Nobody here is doing a bad job, per se, but Wilson is the only actor that will leave a marked impression by the time the credits roll. He finds the right balance between grounded and camp in his turn, never going over-the-top. No doubt, his past experience in the horror genre aided him there.
Netflix has made a concentrated effort to give their original films theatrical runs in recent years, but tellingly In the Tall Grass is going straight to streaming after its festival screenings. That's probably for the best, since when compared to the other titles Netflix has on the horizon, In the Tall Grass comes across as largely inconsequential. Like a lot of Netflix content, it's made for a very particular audience, with no larger aspirations in mind. Stephen King fans and horror aficionados may be inclined to check it out, but for others, there are probably some better options to cross off the streaming queue.
In the Tall Grass is now streaming on Netflix. It is 101 minutes long and is rated TV-MA.
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