Directed By Vincenzo Natali
Starring – Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson
The Plot – When siblings Becky (Oliveira) and Cal (Whitted) hear the cries of a young boy (Will Buie Jr) lost within a field of tall grass, they venture in to rescue him, only to become ensnared themselves by a sinister force that quickly disorients and separates them. Cut off from the world and unable to escape the field’s tightening grip, they soon discover that the only thing worse than getting lost is being found.
– Sharp cinematography. Craig Wrobleski does an outstanding job here not only illustrating the thick and overpowering nature of the grass, but also conjuring up a variety of deep and meaningful shots that really puts the audience in the confines of this environment. Wrobleski offers a combination of overhead and on-the-ground shots that attacks the immensity of this location so thoroughly, all the while maintaining an air of claustrophobia that plays into the urgency and unpredictability of the situation. He does so while emitting a haunted isolation from someone standing outside of the madness that persists inside, turning a bland unintimidating field into an endearing mass of swallowing uncertainty. Thanks to Craig’s standstill execution and a patience in editing consistency, the film is able to construct the setting in a way that makes it believably infinite because of its clever tricks behind the lens, and it solidifies Craig as the single most consistent aspect of the production.
– Surprisingly scary imagery. “In the Tall Grass” isn’t going to be atop anyone’s scariest films of all time list, but for a few short instances there is enough unnerving imagery and riveting tension to make these spare instances memorable through the eyes of the audience. One scene involves the pregnancy of Becky coming to fruition. A scene so hypnotically dark and entrancing that it brought back childhood flashbacks of my psychological trauma associated with seeing “Rosemary’s Baby” for the first time. For a Netflix release, this film certainly ups the bar for mainstream horror releases in a way that forces you to take them seriously, all the while establishing to the audience why true horror doesn’t require cheap and untimely jump scares to sell the ferocity of its product.
– Cleverness. While the set-up for this conflict stretches believability a bit, the attempts at silencing the audience and their skeptibility is something that I commend the film greatly for, in spending valuable time towards debating it. Throughout the film, there are no shortages of protagonist attempts at making the time inside of the grass that much easier, seen through an array of possibilities like grass-bending to create a familiar track, shoulder sitting to see a familiar building to march towards, and sun and moon tracking for directional guidance. All of this is pursued and defeated by the film’s adversity, leaving very few opportunities of escape to be realized by our characters or the audience alike.
– Material’s message. A Stephen King story might be the last thing you’d expect to have such a deep and spiritually connecting message, but that reason is why “In the Tall Grass” has always preserved itself as one of the more reflective stories within King’s library that people can connect with. Through a series of repetition based on choices, the story is trying to convey that humans have many choices to do things different based on their experiences, challenging them to see and spot things differently when the next chance arises. Because of such, there’s plenty of heart-wrenchingly endearing moments in the film, when the roads of triumph and tragedy cross paths briefly, and grants our protagonists several second chances that most people don’t ever get. It is a bit meandering towards the pacing and urgency of the film, but I would rather the material giving me some semblance of connective tissue for me to invest in, and “In the Tall Grass” does this by the dozen, in its own Stephen King-ish way.
– Stilted performances. Outside of Patrick Wilson getting to play a dirtier character than we typically associate him with, the rest of the unknown cast was every bit as unconvincing emotionally as they were unlikeable personally. Some characters are stupid and illogical with their movements, some are fleshed out to be completely horrible people, and some completely lack the emotional resonance instilled with such a serious situation. The moments that are supposed to be splashed with fear and paranoia are reduced to the kind of emotional conflict associated with a mosquito landing on their skin, and it left me generally uninterested for how underwhelming their registry left me unsatisfied.
– Stretched material. The book that this movie is based on is a mere 60 pages in length, so to stretch this out to a 90 minute feature length film, many problems would arise. For one, the film, even at 90 minutes, is far too long. 80 minutes would be enough to satisfy me while reaching the bare minimum of what’s defied as a feature length runtime. The second problem is the pacing within the film, which runs through roughly the first two-thirds of the book within the first 25 minutes of the film. If it slows down and harvests more of that first night positivity that persists within the desire to get out, then the film can better document the change in atmosphere and attitude, further fleshing out the performances in a way that also cures my first problem with the film. The pacing for this film is completely arduous, and never finds its rhythm within the proper progress of the story, limiting its appeal both to fans and non-fans of the book, for their own respectively different reasons.
– Book changes. Speaking of the short story that I fell in love with, the movie takes the safe route with the material up until about the halfway point, when a series of demeaning decisions leaves it feeling so unfamiliar from the story it’s based on. For this film, there are too many characters. Why this is a problem is because it limits the helplessness of the protagonists, all the while omitting isolation completely from the conflict of the story. The next problem comes with the abandonment of certain important characters for the progression of others. This not only feels like a betrayal of the people who we were brought into the story with, but also rewrites the ending in a way that didn’t measure up to the one I enjoyed in the book. I completely understand adding to a story this minimal, but the decisions made gave this story an unnecessary facelift that took more displeasing liberties than I would’ve preferred.
– Underwhelming sound mixing. This isn’t normally a problem that I would call out unless it was painfully obvious to the integrity of the film, but considering the gimmick in this book is sounds being distorted and heard from changing directions, the lack of such in the film feels like a missed opportunity in immersing the audience in the experience of the characters. Far too often, characters have to describe to us the audience the direction where the voice is coming from, and I feel like the movie’s gimmick would’ve hit even more effectively if that problem never existed in the first place. I even watched this film while wearing headphones, and the lack of emphasis given to sporadic audio was probably the most disappointing aspect of the adaptation for me personally, and dropped the ball in creating something original to stand among King’s other adaptations.
– Unanswered questions. There is no shortage of these within the confines of this movie. The film’s closing moments alone stand as a reminder of a total underdeveloped lack of exposition left unfulfilled throughout, as so much changes within such a short amount of time, and there’s no explanation for it. Particularly with the rock itself, its powers are mostly cryptic, leaving no explanation even remotely for how any of this is even remotely possible. Then there’s the church being placed across the road from the field. Is the church meant to be a metaphor for hope, or empty promises of salvation? Is the field itself a symbol for the saddest corners of our subconscious? These are the questions I found myself asking during some of the more uneventful stretches of the film, but there were no answers or directions to be found anywhere. I guess the excuse that is going to reside in everyone who watches this is “Well…..magic??”. Too much time wasted on the characters, and too little on the world-building of the environment, leaving us as blinded by what transpires as the characters embattled in the heat of the situation.
– Staggering direction. Natali as a director is someone who I credited immensely for his psychology instilled in the cult favorite “Cube”, but his total lack of imagination or illustration here for the total lack of emphasis on the rules is something that dooms him almost immediately. The shallowness of the plotting is unnervingly frustrating from the start, as Natali directs each scene with all the clarity of a broken compass. He’s a master of atmosphere, and has no trouble insinuating all sorts of hidden dangers to the fear of the audience, but there’s nothing enjoyable about watching people try to solve a puzzle that doesn’t have any firm rules set in stone (See what I did there?). In fact, its repetition is twice the problem, as in this instance it’s the same wash, rinse, repeat formula that its characters, nor its audience can ever overcome in moments of utter boredom. If King and Natali can’t save this film, what in imagination rightfully could?
My Grade: 4/10 or D-