It’s a great time to be a Stephen King fan. The past couple of years have been a sort of resurgence for the author and his place in pop culture, mostly thanks to 2017’s wildly successful It adaptation. Now it feels like a new King film, television series, book, or any of the three that’s noticeably inspired by his work (such as Stranger Things), is out every other week. What’s more, nearly all of them have been miraculously solid. In the Tall Grass, the third of four King films for 2019, fits this mold pretty well, for the most part.
Based on the novella by King and his son, Joe Hill, this story is actually one of the few I have yet to read by him (I’m a massive fan). Thankfully, this let me view the film without any prior familiarization or expectations, something that I believe ultimately allowed me to enjoy the film far more than if I had already known everything that happens. I say all this because In the Tall Grass’ greatest strength is its concept, and how the story takes a series of turns that succeed at keeping your interest throughout. What begins as a simple idea will quickly surprise you, and, much like the titular tall grass field that lures in its victims, you’ll find yourself hooked in as well.
Most Stephen King stories take place in his home state of Maine, but In the Tall Grass features a vastly different setting: rural Kansas. Driving along a long, empty road through vast fields of corn and grass, Becky DeMuth (Laysla De Oliveira) and her brother, Cal (Avery Whitted), are on their way to San Diego. This cross-country trip comes to a halt when Becky, who’s six months pregnant, has a bout of nausea and has to stop the car. Right as the two are about to continue on, they hear the calls of a young boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), coming from the field of tall grass next to the road. Tobin’s gotten himself lost in the field and needs help, so Becky and Cal head in to find the kid. As you can probably guess, they soon find out that it’s pretty easy to get lost in their themselves.
For anyone who lives in these parts of the United States or has at least driven by them, the idea of what may be lurking in those endless fields has likely crossed your mind. Writer and director Vincenzo Natali and cinematographer Craig Wrobleski perfectly capture the disorienting feeling of being trapped in the maze, with nothing but the blazing sun above them and confining stalks of grass surrounding them. Overhead shots of the field help to comprehend the immense size of it and how hopelessly further apart those trapped in it drift from each other, and for something so large, there’s a definite feeling of confinement and claustrophobia.
Natali and Wrobleski are also no strangers to the supernatural or the occult, with the two of them best known for their television work that between them includes The X-Files, Orphan Black, Hannibal, The Strain, and this year’s Twilight Zone reboot. There’s something sinister within the grass that knowingly traps its victims within and confuses them – at one point, Becky and Cal decide to jump up above the grass to figure out where each other are. They do so and see that they’re not too far apart. Before moving, they jump up one more time to double check, but are now suddenly a football field apart. Clearly, something is very wrong here.
Time works very differently within the field, and this concept is what In the Tall Grass really has going for it. Besides Becky, Cal, and Tobin, three more people find themselves trapped: Patrick Wilson (how did he escape from James Wan?) plays Tobin’s father, Ross, who’s searching for both his lost son and his wife, Natalie (Rachel Wilson). The family dog, Freddy, is also somewhere within. Becky’s ex-boyfriend, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), shows up as well. But the order in which everyone arrives doesn’t make sense – time keeps changing and looping, speeding up and slowing down, and everyone’s positions in the maze keep switching. The sun will be at one place in the sky one second and somewhere else entirely in the next. The film continuously surprises you, and attempting to figure out how the maze works as you go along is part of the fun.
Besides his television work, Natali also created the movie Cube back in 1997, which was about six strangers who find themselves trapped in a maze of deadly traps – Saw before Saw was a thing. Naturally, the director is able to juggle the cast of seven without a hitch, but it’s when the characters come together and have to interact that In the Tall Grass begins to dip in quality. Much of the dialogue comes across as too unnatural, perhaps due to a combination of the writing and acting. I’m guessing that little of the fault lies with the actors – many of the lines seem to be straight from the book, dialogue that may work just fine in print form but translate poorly onscreen. This, and all conversation is shot very statically, with simple cuts backs and forth between the speaking characters that are often obviously from different takes. These moments stop the film’s suspense and momentum dead in their tracks, and are the only times it comes close to exposing its “straight to Netflix” production.
The only other aspect I find lacking is the characters themselves, who are never particularly interesting. Of course, if you’re a horror fan who’s only waiting to see which ones inevitably kick the bucket, and the horrible ways that it happens (the film’s third act is pretty damn gruesome), then this might not be a real issue for you (it didn’t take too much away from my enjoyment of it). In the Tall Grass by concept alone is enough to scare and intrigue viewers, but the twists in its story and the way that Natali captures the feelings of dread and suspense that Stephen King is so famous for are what will you keep you glued to the screen. Not every question gets answered, but enough are to make for a satisfying conclusion. It’s not a bad horror choice for this October.
3.5 / 5 Stars