Netflix Now: In the Tall Grass (2019) - Reviewed

stephen king

The Stephen King renaissance rolls on with Netflix tackling another adaption. After 2017 brought us two of the best in recent memory, 1922 and Gerald’s Game, the idea of Netflix becoming a home for smaller, less well known King stories adapted by interesting filmmakers seemed like a safe bet. Two years later they’re back at it with Vincenzo Natali adapting In the Tall Grass, a novella by King and his son Joe Hill.

On their way to San Diego, brother and sister, Cal and Becky, pull over so Becky can collect herself. Pregnant, Becky is feeling nauseous and steps out of the car. Next to them is an endless field of impossibly tall grass and coming from it are the cries for help from a little boy. Hesitant at first, Cal and Becky go in to investigate and we’re off and running.

A film like this should take no time at all getting off the ground and thankfully, cult-horror mainstay Natali knows this. As Cal and Becky make their way through grass in search of the boy, time and space begins to shift around them and nothing is as it appears. Like a lot of King’s work, the space within the titular tall grass may have more mystical, trans-dimensional qualities.

in the tall grass

It makes for an interesting premise but it’s one that Natili can’t sustain for long enough. Almost immediately, your patience wears thin and it’s almost entirely due to the characters and the fact that they’re barely even one-dimensional. King’s stories, even at their worst, almost always capture the humanity of their protagonists. He has an uncanny ability to inject genre storytelling with a pathos that forces you to feel for them on a deeper level than you usually would. He can build entire lifetimes into a character that you might only see for a few pages. Understandably, that’s easier to do with the written word than on film but it’s just so hard to connect with or care about anything that happens to the people in Natali’s film. Every performance is about as boiler-plate as it gets. Right down the creepy kid who, at this point, is a copy of a copy of a copy. Every performance is like this save for one; Patrick Wilson. Wilson is terrific here giving a wonderfully unhinged turn that subverts his everyman charm in all the right ways. He preys on the protagonists (and the audience’s) inherent trust in him and it’s a joy to watch.

You dont go into most horror movies expecting great characters. There’s the expectation that even if a film can’t capture King’s deftness with characterization, you’ll at least be treated to horrifying thrills. This is where Natali drops the ball in the most egregious of ways. The premise is simple and one wonders how anyone could stretch it into a 90 minute movie. For better or worse, it’s people running in circles trying to find a way out. If anyone could have figured out a way to stretch it, it’s the Cube guy, right? He’s already proven that he’s capable of circuitous storytelling, where characters repeat their steps to increasingly disorienting effect. Sadly, that’s just not the case here. Almost instantly, like the characters, you realize there isn’t anywhere to go. You’re stuck in a 90 minute maze with people who just aren’t that interesting encountering things that, for the most part, just aren't that disturbing. Minus one completely bonkers moment towards the end, In the Tall Grass offers nothing scary nor thrilling enough to set it apart.

As the proliferation of King properties continues to spread across our tv and movie screens, some are bound to disappoint. That’s the case here as In the Tall Grass lands with a relatively small thud. It’s not bad enough to watch from afar and it’s not good enough to put into your King rotation. Instead it exists in a liminal space where you’ll find yourself going mad, not from the endlessness of the grassy field but from boredom. I’m not sure this story is on that could’ve easily been adapted in the first place and this effort isn’t a promising answer to that question.

-Brandon Streussnig