In the Tall Grass
Death, taxes, and inadequate Stephen King adaptations are three guarantees in life. In the Tall Grass upholds this tradition of missing the mark, but it deserves some credit for trying.
Director Vincenzo Natali is no stranger to high concept cinema. From Cube to Splice, and several other single word title films, Natali has been able to tackle out-there concepts by making them visually appealing and emotionally raw. In the Tall Grass tries very hard to compete on those two axes, but the strain to connect them and the mundane setting make it very hard to root for.
In the Tall Grass starts with a brother and sister on a tense road trip. Significantly pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and her clean-cut brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are either running from something or running toward something, or both, but in any case it’s clear that their long drive is not just to get some fresh air on a Sunday. In the middle of nowhere, across from an old country church, they hear a child’s voice coming from the tall grass, begging for help. When I say tall grass, I mean as tall as corn stalks in August, but denser. Wanting to save this young boy, Tobin (Will Buie, Jr.), they head out into the grass to find him and bring him out to safety. Easy enough, right?
Nothing could be that simple in a film based on a novella by the father-son team of Stephen King and Joe Hill. As Becky and Cal wander into the grass and get separated, it becomes clear that this grass makes time and space mere suggestions and not the constants we take for granted. The rest of the running time is dedicated to these two trying to stay alive and to get out of the dang grass. That might be easier if they were alone or if that giant boulder with magic radiating from it would let them escape.
Some of the drone shots of the vastness of the grass in the wind are breathtaking. Much like a shot wandering through the darkness of the open ocean is enough to run a chill down the spine, these aerial shots of the field hammer home the loneliness and claustrophobia of being in unending wilderness. Although I have an embarrassingly inadequate audio system in my apartment, I can imagine that a good mix of noises coming from all angles would enhance the immersive feeling of these contemplative establishing shots.
My own home theater’s shortcomings aside, the tempo and source of fear in In the Tall Grass never sticks its landing. This is not necessarily due to failing to present the fear of the unknown, as all of those shots of the great green grasses and their lack of the space-time continuum take care of that. Rather, we keep being given a variety of things to be afraid of within the grass itself. Whether it’s other people, or that big rock, or folk horror elements, or Patrick Wilson (when is he ever not scary?), the tedious presentation of a menu of fears distracts from the primal base fear of the grass itself.
Like many King adaptations, it’s quite possible that the source story works on many more planes than the adaptation. Unfortunately, like many adaptations, In the Tall Grass falls short in this new medium.