In the Tall Grass, written and directed Vincenzo Natali, is based on a 2012 novella by King and his son, Joe Hill. It’s the story of a brother and sister, Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted) who pull off to the side of the road during a cross country trip and hear a boy’s voice coming from a field. They go into the field to investigate and find themselves trapped.
The set up is incredibly simple. And yet, from even those very beginning moments, Natali’s filmmaking will give you the creeps. The tall, imposing grass. The dark, wet, disgusting mud. The crackling noises and disparate sounds coming from all across the audio mix. It all adds to a setting that is as basic as basic gets, but still completely unnerving.
As Becky and Cal first try to find the boy, they soon lose each other, and things get much more complicated from there. There’s the introduction of Becky’s ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the boy whose voice they heard, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), and Tobin’s parents (Patrick Wilson and Rachel Wilson). The name that stands out there, of course, is Insidious, Conjuring, and Watchmen star Patrick Wilson and it’s his character, Ross, who first encounters Becky and Cal. At first, Ross seems harmless but Wilson wouldn’t be in this movie if he was just a minor character. As the story progresses, Ross continues to gain in prominence until, well, we won’t say.
What we will say is that nothing in In the Tall Grass is as it seems. Not time, not space, not life, and not death. And that constant guessing game of how the grass is being so devious, but also what’s real, what’s not, when is this happening, etc., is thoroughly engaging. Engaging and just plain spooky. In the Tall Grass doesn’t have many jump scares but the whole thing is built to be unsettling, which it excels at. In large part, that’s due to Natali’s abundant use of extreme close-ups, which give drops of water, bugs, and the grass a massive, menacing presence.
And while that general tension is prominent for the first half of the film, as things begin to head toward the conclusion, In the Tall Grass pivots into gore. Heads are popped, bodies decay, bones are broken and eyes are stabbed. Plus, shit gets super-duper weird. Like really weird. The tribal chanting that happens out of nowhere is a jarring hint that where the film is going is not going to be easily digested.
The problem with all of this, though, is that while the interwoven narrative and scares are solid, the characters are never quite as interesting. Natali’s script is filled with backstory for all the main characters but it rarely amounts to more than bland exposition. It’s certainly meant to make the audience feel for them but their environment and plight is much more fascinating and so the characters never measure up.
As a result, when things really do get their goriest and weirdest, there’s a detachment that keeps the film from being as impactful as it wants to be. The payoffs are good, but they’d be better if the characters were more dynamic.
Without a strong investment in the characters, In the Tall Grass is nothing but a cool, gross, weird, horror movie. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a movie that can legit freak you out just by showing a screen full of green grass. But still, Natali definitely aspired to more.
In the Tall Grass had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019 this weekend. It premieres on Netflix October 4.