Film Review – In the Tall Grass
In the Tall Grass
In the Tall Grass (2019) starts out well enough. Cal (Avery Whitted) and his pregnant sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) are on a cross country road trip. While making a pit stop next to an old church, they hear the cries of a young boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) coming from the nearby grass. Tobin has wandered into the tall brush and has lost his way. Compelled to help him, Cal and Becky venture out into grass only to be lost themselves. What follows is an increasingly unsettling story as Cal and Becky realize that they are not alone in the grass, and that a supernatural presence has come to hunt them down.
The opening act is easily the best section. Based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill, writer/director Vincenzo Natali (of Cube and Splice fame) constructs these early sequences with a keen visual flair. The grass is portrayed like a living organism – too high to see over and too thick to see through – overpowering our characters like a web slowly wrapping up its latest victim. Natali (along with cinematographer Craig Wrobleski) incorporate numerous high angle shots pointing straight down into the grass, watching as it moves and weaves with the wind, giving off the impression that it’s actually breathing.
The sound design does an excellent job of disorienting our sense of geography. We learn soon enough that the grass appears to be shifting in size, becoming a maze that is constantly changing. Cal and Becky try to get a sense of where they are by yelling out to each other, but the sound of their voices get louder and fainter even when they are standing still. At one point they sound like they are close and then in another they seem hundreds of feet apart. The best moment comes when both Cal and Becky jump in the air to see where they are. The first jump shows them mere feet from each other, but a second jump reveals them to be almost on opposite ends of the field.
Natali’s visual style and grasp of tone makes the opening act a promising start off. Unfortunately, he is unable to hold the creepy atmosphere. The introduction of married couple Ross (Patrick Wilson) and Natalie (Rachel Wilson) along with a sixth character named Travis (Harrison Gilberston) breaks the established spell. This is one of those instances where we have a great premise but nowhere to go with it. The tension begins to dissipate rapidly as the group wanders around the grass, going in different directions and making turns with no reason other than to simply keep walking. Since we are stuck in one setting with little differentiation in visual background (it really is nothing but tall green grass), the narrative begins to feel repetitive. To remedy this, a ghostly element is brought in but sadly causes the entire whole to jump off the rails. I won’t describe what that element is, but it ends up not being developed well enough to warrant its inclusion.
Patrick Wilson – as Ross – stands out from the rest. Wilson plays Ross like a slimy car salesman. Sporting a thin mustache and a pink collared shirt tucked into ill-fitting khaki pants, Ross’ persona constantly gives the impression that he is holding up a façade or has some kind of trick up his sleeve. It also helps that Wilson is physically larger than the rest of the cast, imposing his strength and will as an advantage. Where Ross’ character arc goes is pretty confounding, since such little information is provided as to how the grass uses its supernatural powers for and against the characters. But Wilson does the best he can with what he has and presents the most memorable performance of the bunch.
Netflix original productions often have the disadvantage of looking like bargain bin television shows, with their waxy aesthetics and low-tech special effects. In the Tall Grass has its phony moments, with certain unrealistic shots of the sky and horizon. But it’s not the visuals that hold it back, but rather the way the narrative meanders about the further it goes along. The story gets lost itself, going around in circles trying to come up with an interesting way of building tension and then paying off with a satisfying conclusion. Sadly, it doesn’t get there. Instead, things become far more incoherent as the horror starts to build. One of the most frustrating things about ghost stories (or anything involving a supernatural force) is when the rules aren’t established over what they can or cannot do. It’s one thing to have a ghost remain a mystery, it’s another to give them the freedom to do whatever the hell it wants. It takes the agency out of the character’s hands, abandoning them to whatever twists and turns the ghost has for them.
That’s what makes In the Tall Grass such a disappointing experience. It starts out with the highest potential but is unable to keep the momentum going. This was a great short film stretched out and padded to become a dull feature length flick.