Directed by: Vincenzo Natali. Starting: Laysla de Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Harrison Gilbertson. Runtime: 1h, 41 min. Released: October 4, 2019.
Based on the novella by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass does not overcome a complicated story. The set-up is simple enough. A pregnant Becky (Laysla de Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are on their way to San Diego. When they pass through an anonymous rural area in Kansas (actually filmed in Toronto), a little boy named Tobin (Will Bouie Jr.) calls for help from a tall field of grass.
Like many horror stories, this is born from a “What if?” What if a kid shouts for help from the depths of some very tall grass and claims he can’t get out? Unfortunately for Becky and Cal, they decide to help and soon find there’s no way out.
The film’s similar to The Blair Witch Project in the way that characters lose all sense of direction. Characters could hear someone else right next to them, and then all of the sudden it sounds like they’re on the other side of the field. Coming with losing sense of direction, also comes the sense of time being lost. There’s a sense of it being a time loop occasionally, but it’s more-so blurring past and present while in the field. This is really what allows the film to be confusing.
The only rule the grass has is that if something dies, the grass doesn’t move it around. Otherwise, it has no rules. It throws the timeline of events out of whack constantly, so it’s tough to follow. The film starts with Tobin calling Becky and Cal into the field. They try to find him and get lost, and the initial exploration of the grass has fine tension. Things get interesting when ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) comes looking for Becky.
He finds their car beside a Church across the street from the grass and goes into the grass looking for them. I thought Travis would get lost and someone would look for him, and then someone would come looking for that person… It would be like a chain of people looking for people in this field. What happens in the film is more creative, surely, but also more confusing.
This film has the weirdest patch of grass in the world, though. In the centre of it, there’s a large rock that Ross Humboldt (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father, claims that if you touch it, you’ll know everything the tall grass knows. Since this field is across the street from that Church, it’s really like a worship rock. The film has religious undercurrents through it, where some aspects feel inspired by the Bible.
Compared to Stephen King’s other works, this feels like Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary in the way that there is sacred ground and everything seems to be reborn here when it becomes part of the Earth, which is an intriguing idea.
The characters themselves aren’t intriguing. Becky is fine and I like her character growth. Cal can be annoying. Tobin is just a kid trying to get out of the tall grass. There’s some okay character tension between Cal and Travis but it’s rather weak drama. Travis tries to make up for past mistakes with Becky, which is noble, I suppose.
The film’s horror is very much about the unknown, and the grass makes me think twice about going into random fields or corn mazes, or anywhere I can’t see five feet in front of me. The film has a cabin fever vibe as the characters start to get stressed out by their surroundings. The giant worship rock also brings an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme.
There are some strong horror scenes, like one 10-second part I played back a couple times because the visual is just gnarly, but the film is hurt by nonsensical storytelling. I got antsy for them to escape the grass. Not because I cared, because I wanted this to be over. I will say, though, that the production value is strong and the settings of the film are nice, and Craig Wrobleski’s cinematography makes the grass a character in its own right.
Some of the horror is the grass slowly, menacingly billowing in the wind. We got enough of that in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Yet, In the Tall Grass does not have nearly the same amount of entertainment value, and feels a lot of its pacing feels like watching grass grow.