The Spool / Fantastic Fest 2019
Fantastic Fest: “In The Tall Grass” Is Lost And Going In Circles
The Vincenzo Natali adaptation of Stephen King's short story is a repetitive struggle.
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The Vincenzo Natali adaptation of Stephen King’s short story is a repetitive struggle.

There’s plenty of promise in the economic nature of In The Tall Grass. The story of a pair of siblings driving across the country who are lured into the tall grass by the cries of a lost child and become lost should be a relatively straightforward Stephen King adaptation. And yet…

Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is six months pregnant and her older brother Cal (Avery Whitted) is extremely protective of her. The film opens with the two discussing the status of her pregnancy, so there’s a clear dialogue about child-rearing embedded in the narrative from the get-go. It makes sense, then, that the siblings would leave the safety of the road behind in order to find a child in danger. Instead of becoming would-be heroes, however, they immediately get separated and uncontrollably lost among the tall grass.

The urgency with which the film dispenses of the character introductions in order to throw them into the thick of the action is admirable. In The Tall Grass takes place entirely within a dense garden of foliage, with little, if any, reprieve from the persistent maze of vegetation.

For the most part Natali and his production crew use this to maximize the oppressive, claustrophobic feelings of the characters, which is only heightened as night falls and each sibling is approached by a stranger: Cal connects with the child, Tobin (Will Buie Jr), while Becky meets Tobin’s father, Ross (Patrick Wilson). Neither is quite what they appear, but then neither is the grass, which is revealed over the course of the film to have several supernatural powers, including a kind of sentience (amplified by unnatural sighs and whispers on the soundtrack), as well as the ability to “move” live things around.

Despite the small cast of characters and the limited scope of the setting, people die surprisingly often in In The Tall Grass and there is a lot of superfluous running in circles – which could have been madcap, but unfortunately just becomes exhausting. Without revealing the details of what exactly is happening in the grass, suffice it to say that the plot borrows liberally from familiar King tropes about dead things staying dead, though not in a clever or useful way.

In The Tall Grass suffers both because it is highly repetitive (to such an extent that its 90-minute runtime feels much, much longer) and also feels utterly rudderless. Too much running, too much escaping only to get caught again, and too much time spent resisting the urge to touch the giant alien rock and its symbolism-heavy markings. By the time that Becky’s ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) plunges into the grass after hearing her voice, audiences may feel like they’re stuck in their own tall grass deja vu loop.

The actors are doing as well as can be expected for individuals playing thinly sketched characters. Becky barely ever rises above her status as a pregnant damsel in distress, and Cal is so protective of his sister that he borders on creepy and oppressive. Tobin is a typical King child: wise and vaguely sinister, while Ross is barely a cipher. Wilson’s performance, in particular, is one of campy malice, and while he is a lot of fun, he’s also acting in a different, more unusual film than everyone else. The result is frequently jarring.

In The Tall Grass suffers both because it is highly repetitive…and also feels utterly rudderless

Only Travis is given a proper arc, albeit a trite and reductive one about accepting his new role as a father. Themes of sacrifice, willingness to change and forgiveness abound, but by the time the extended climax unspools in a torrential downpour, it’s hard to invest in these characters’ survival. Even a truly gruesome and unexpected development, which should be a huge talking point for the film, is reduced to a question mark due to questionable framing and editing, which calls into question exactly what is happening. Fans of the short story will know when they see it, but for audiences unfamiliar with the short story, it’s a confusing jumble.

This is all the more disappointing considering the man behind the camera. Over the last few years, Vincenzo Natali has become one of the most visionary directors working in television, but here he seems curiously muted and clamped down. His signature flourishes of beautiful violence are mostly absent save for a gorgeous nightmare and a quick sequence when rain begins to fall on the grass in slow motion close-up. Aside from that, however, the film is strangely normal and the not-insignificant amount of violence that exists is disappointingly implied or takes place off-camera.

If this is the version of Natali that audiences can expect when he collaborates with Netflix, the man who elevated Hannibal, American Gods and Splice to high art needs to escape from the streaming grass as soon as possible.

In The Tall Grass debuts on Netflix on October 4.

In the Tall Grass Trailer: