Stephen King and Joe Hill are talented writers, gifted storytellers…and slightly related. When I heard they were collaborating on a novella together and a movie was being made based on it, the little movie-loving boy in me did a happy dance.
King adaptations tend to be hit or miss (a few misses this year alone) but both the novella and the film have a simple setup and premise: a brother and sister named Becky (Laysla de Oliveria) and Cal (Avery Whitted) hear the cries of a young child stuck in a field tall grass and they go to investigate.
King has said he loves to put characters in a situation and see how they act in it. The beauty of that premise is who the characters are is revealed within their actions and choices. No need for long exposition for where they’ve been. It’s all pure storytelling.
The film, much like the novella, seems to try too hard to be sneaky and quiet in its supernatural leanings and time-wrapped storytelling, which makes it muddled. The movie calls attention to itself with the occasional clever moment that makes you feel like the journey in the tall grass is driving towards somewhere special.
The problem becomes when you realize there is no payoff.
The movie is wrapped in mystery of hows and whys. While the script doesn’t need to answer them directly (the novella surely doesn’t), you need something to latch onto.
There is ambiguous and then there is just emptiness. Unfortunately, the movie falls in the latter.
Where the ambiguous storytelling works is everything surrounding the mystical rock in the middle of a maze the characters frequently find themselves. The visual storytelling and the haunting score tells everything you need to know. I’m glad that writer/director Vincenzo Natali never felt the need to overly explain the mythology, horror is better unexplained or symbolic (most of) the time.
Natali does have a strong visual sense. The movie is willing to experiment visually, bending and twisting the camera in interesting ways that do fit with the chaotic nature of the grass.
Natali doesn’t entirely nail down the idea of the grass as a character.
This movie is about the environment around the characters. The grass and the rock each have a consciousness and Natali doesn’t play with that enough. Occasionally, there are moments where he does that make you sit up and pay attention.
I felt like the horror of the environment wasn’t taken advantage of enough however. There is a moment of conflict between two characters where the grass stops waving in the wind and it gave me chills. Those kind of moments are far and few between.
The Madness of Patrick Wilson
Over the course of the story, the brother and sister encounter another family of three, Natalie, Tobin, and Ross.
Ross, played by Patrick Wilson, is a performance that can only be described as bonkers. Ross is written on the surface as a caricature, the All-American father, a sales agent with the tucked-in polo shirt with the bad cliches. He succumbs to the power of the grass and acts outwardly violent toward the other characters.
When his character gets violent, he acts in reserved religious madness. He still pulls back his anger to tries to act like a Stepford husband, but has the twinge in his eye that signals fierceness. I want to call it over-the-top but instead it’s a performance that is a ton of fun to watch. He is given lines that will make you laugh at inappropriate times. When Wilson is on screen, this movie has a new life.
It’s a shame the rest of the actors fall short. The performances of Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted are a little flat. Avery is really the weakest link; however, his character has a similar feel to aspects of Patrick Wilson.
Netflix and the Lesser of the Kings
Netflix has made something of a small little industry out of low-budget Stephen King adaptations. From Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game to the atmospheric 1922, Netflix has a steady stream of King content. Most are reliable in their quality but In the Tall Grass is the first one that seems to truly miss the mark despite its small moments where it showed potential.
If you saw 1922, you noticed a flawed third act but that film brims with personality and performance. In the Tall Grass, while occasionally visually striking, is messy in its story convictions and light in its character work. The drama is carried in exposition and never truly feels rich.
I only wish this movie was operating on the level of Patrick Wilson, because then we would have something truly special and adaptation worthy of King and Hill.