In the Tall Grass
Director – Vincenzo Natali
Cast – Patrick Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Rachel Wilson
Going by the spectacular fashion in which In the Tall Grass loses its way somewhere in the middle yet cheerfully carries on, I wouldn’t be surprised if director Vincenzo Natali shrugged off his (and the film’s) problems by smoking some of that fine grass he found himself surrounded by.
Based on a novella co-written by Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill, the new Netflix film fails to build on a fantastic premise and like its characters, gets stuck in a loop of its own making. It would be unfair to blame Natali for stretching out what is a relatively tight story to feature length — some of the best King adaptations, including The Shawshank Redemption, are based on short stories — but aimlessness certainly is one of its bigger problems.
Watch the In the Tall Grass trailer here
Often, perhaps to beef up the runtime, Natali unleashes some truly surreal scene transitions, which, while quite stunning to look at, function more as periodic distractions than anything else. One of them, which begins with an upside down view of the field of tall grass and blends into a reflection inside a water droplet, is particularly memorable.
But Natali knows a thing or two about surreal set-ups and claustrophobic spaces; he broke out with his 1997 film Cube, now regarded as a cult classic. Like that film, In the Tall Grass also traps its characters inside a deathly prison, where they are forced to confront personal demons, both past and present.
Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted in a still from In the Tall Grass.
On a cross-country drive, a pregnant woman and her companion (revealed to be her brother later on, but not before allowing you to presume he’s the father) stop on the highway after she has a bout of nausea. There is a church on one side of the road — the only building in sight — and an endless field of tall grass on the other. When the woman opens the car door to puke, she hears a young boy call out for help from inside the field.
The siblings rush to help the boy, imagining him to be only a few yards from the side of the road — he sounds like he’s nearby — but are almost immediately separated. Within earshot of each other, they begin calling out, hoping to reunite without much hassle. But that’s when things begin to take a turn for the strange. Becky and Cal soon realise that not only are their chances of finding each other getting slimmer by the minute, but like the boy, they are now also stuck inside the field of tall grass, with no escape in sight.
This portion of the film — the opening act, really — is easily the most enjoyable. And it would greatly improve your viewing experience if you were to watch it with some quality headphones, or through a surround sound system. Because as the siblings begin calling out to each other in the field, the film’s sound design takes on a crucial role. One second Becky is on Cal’s right, and the next she’s on his left. This inventive approach has a rather disorientating effect on the viewer, successfully transporting you into the middle of Becky and Cal’s nightmare.
Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted in a still from In the Tall Grass.
But instead of doubling down on this premise, Natali gets lost in the weeds. Time loops are introduced, as are new characters and a muddled mythology. For a film that should have, ideally, been all subtext like the best King adaptations, it is basically a story about a group of people lost in a field. And because they have no real personality, it’s quite difficult to stay invested in their peril, especially since one of them (Cal) is being rather creepy towards his sister.
Themes of incest and childhood trauma are a staple in King’s fiction. But unlike last year’s Gerald’s Game, or even 1922 (both of which were also released on Netflix), In the Tall Grass fails to deliver a narrative that can match its visual ambition.
Also read: Bird Box movie review: Sandra Bullock’s Netflix thriller refuses to be caged in
For instance, does the fact that it takes place in a nondescript Middle America location have any significance? Is the church meant to be a metaphor for hope, or empty promises of salvation? Is the field itself a symbol for the saddest corners of our subconscious? These are the questions I found myself asking during some of the more uneventful stretches of the film — but there were no answers to be found.
King is naught for three this year, with this, Pet Semetary and It Chapter Two. Here’s hoping the upcoming Doctor Sleep may reawaken his mojo.