The very first shot of In The Tall Grass, Netflix’s cushy adaptation of the Stephen King/Joe Hill novella of the same name, delivers on all the potential of the premise. It’s nothing more than an overhead shot of the central field that slowly, achingly descends ever closer to the grass. It’s a shot filled with unimaginable tension. The grass is alive, hovering faintly, even though there is not a breath of wind to whisper it into motion. I don’t know if there is a term for the sort of sensory discomfort it gave me (think trypophobia, only without the clusters of holes), but my palms itched with the imaginary feeling of touching the view in front of me. Scratchy, like AstroTurf or a Scotch scrubber, or would it be soft and comforting? I waited for it to move — to do something, anything, just to break the trance — and finally a breeze comes, relieving the tension. And the movie begins.
That first shot is the entire promise of the movie, fulfilled. The rest, sadly, doesn’t quite live up — but the result is an oddly compelling letdown in its own way. The story is about people getting lost in a mysterious field of tall grass and struggling to get out again. That’s it. That’s the summary. But it is subject matter that is perfectly suited to Vincenzo Natali, who wrote and directed the adaptation. He’s already covered a similar beat with the “people trapped in an unimaginable prison of which they can’t escape” epic, Cube, and he knows how to bring distinct shades of menace to a claustrophobic, repetitious setting. The challenge, I think, is in the expansion of the original work to fit a feature-length run time, and the new whorls of complications become so knotted that no amount of unraveling will fully satisfy. The bones of the plot remain in tact: siblings Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted) are driving cross-country from New Hampshire to California, and somewhere in Kansas they pull over by the side of the road next to an abandoned church (“The Church of the Black Rock of the Redeemer,” so you know, not a normal church), surrounded by a flat field of tall grass. Super tall grass. Like, grass that stands two feet taller than their heads. And then they hear a boy crying for help from inside the field.
Their rescue mission is complicated by a lot of factors: the boy’s voice always seems to be just out of reach, but also changes direction at the drop of a dime. It seems he has gotten lost in the grass alongside his parents and his dog, so there are more figures who could be waiting, hidden just out of sight. And when Becky loses track of Cal, they struggle to find each other as well. There is no cell service in the field, they can’t see any landmarks for guidance, and by the way — Becky’s pregnant.
The main trick, of course, is that there is Something Very Wrong with the field, which shuffles them around without their notice. But the element that the movie adds, which is not in the original story, is that the field doesn’t just distort space — it distorts time. Or perhaps it’s safer to say it distorts causality itself, so that events can be rewritten, people who are dead can suddenly appear as if they had just arrived, and reality itself folds and condenses so that all outcomes are simultaneously possible. The question, of course, is whether that means there is an outcome that will result in escape, in survival. If everything’s eventual (to coin a King-ism), does that mean it is already determined, or could there be a path left untaken in the field where there are no paths at all?
As you can tell, I’m fascinated by the concept of the film, and there are certainly parts that are wonderful to behold. Natali knows when to take a step back and observe the scenery — the eye of a crow, reflecting our lost heroes, or a drop of dew sliding down a blade of grass. I never got sick of the overhead shots, showing the flowing paths as the characters charged forth into the unknown. The early section of the film reminded me of those dreams you have, that aren’t quite nightmares. The ones where you’re running to something you can’t quite reach, or perhaps you want to run but no matter how hard your brain tries to move your legs, they don’t comply. That confusion and helpless frustration, the movie captures in frightening detail. And I haven’t even mentioned Patrick Wilson’s unsettling turn as the boy’s father, a real estate agent-turned-field zealot who embodies the underlying menace, giving the threat a face. He’s honestly almost too convincing, but then again he always is, perhaps because I can never quite shake the gut-punch I felt watching him for the first time in Little Children. But the parts ultimately don’t resolve into anything as satisfying as the potential of the set-up, because the thing about that mysterious field with the black rock at its center is that it is blade-sharp in its simplicity. The story got away with not over-explaining the goings-on, knowing it was enough to leave readers with the hint of cycles repeating. Instead, the film makes those cycles explicit and offers the option of breaking them — but to do so, it introduces more characters and timelines, and then struggles to unravel it all again.
Ultimately, I can commend the parts heartily, but I’m not sure I’d recommend the whole (and I’ve already heard from one fellow staff member here, who ranted their dissatisfaction with the film in, ah, rather colorful terms on Slack). In some ways I’d love to see what Natali would have done with a streamlined, 20-minute version of this story for something like Creepshow — but that’s probably just my own obsession with that show showing. But as an experience — as something unsettling, and weird, that’s fairily light on gore and heavy on WTF-ery — you could certainly do worse. Just don’t come calling to me afterward, complaining that you hated it. After all, you’re the one who decided to watch a movie about some bad grass.
Header Image Source: Netflix