‘In the Tall Grass’ Review: Stephen King Horror Gets Lost in the Weeds

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It’s never a good sign when your most interesting character is a field of malevolent grass. Such is the case in Vincenzo Natali’s horror slog Into the Tall Grass, an adaptation of Stephen King and his son Joe Hill’s 2012 novella of the same name. Although filmmakers have successfully expanded on King’s shorter material in critically acclaimed films like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, Natali’s attempts to crowd weak characterization and mythology into what could be a simple, claustrophobic mood piece fall flat.

The Netflix original opens on a nondescript Midwestern road surrounded by, you guessed it, tall grass. Virtually the only information that we get about the film’s paper-thin main characters comes courtesy of a brief prologue, which catches up with a young man named Cal (Avery Whitted) and his very pregnant sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) hours into a road trip.

They half-heartedly argue about whether or not they should continue their travel to San Diego, where a couple is interested in adopting Becky’s unborn child. But when Becky suddenly suffers from a late-term bout of morning sickness that forces them to pull over, she hears it — the voice of a young boy calling for help somewhere inside the nearby fields. She and Cal decide to leave their car by an empty church, which is suspiciously surrounded by abandoned vehicles, to find him.

Despite the fact that Cal enters the grass moments before Becky, the two instantly lose sight of one another. At first, they attempt to find their relative bearings by jumping up in the air and realize that they’re still only 10 feet or so apart. Yet even when they can hear each other shouting nearby, neither is able to find either their sibling or the child whose voice drew them in.

As the tedium of wandering in circles begins to take hold, the two finally locate the boy. His name is Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), and he’s prone to blurting out ominous phrases like “the tall grass knows everything” and “the field doesn’t move dead things around.” Even creepier is his fixation on a large rock that hums with the voices of people who have died in the grass and maybe controls its constantly shifting pathways. The trouble is that it’s hard to determine who is actually dead. The field seems to be stuck in a time loop, with different versions of its victims moving around simultaneously.

Rather than attempting to uncover how the trippy timelines of Into the Tall Grass work or what is supposedly killing the hundreds of spirits stuck in the field, the film crowds new players onto its already shaky foundation, such as Tobin’s father, Ross (Patrick Wilson), and Travis (Harris Gilbertson), the long-absent father of Becky’s child. He turns up because, apparently, in the outside world, the siblings have been missing for weeks.

There are weak attempts at Groundhog Day-like redemption arcs, including a near-incestual conflict between Cal and Travis over Becky’s affections and an unconvincing storyline in which Becky’s indifference towards the fetus she’s carrying quickly changes. Still, the characters are too flat for any emotional beats to land.

An evil field of grass that traps its victims by constantly rearranging their paths is an intriguing enough premise on its own. But for viewers looking for answers about why the grass lures these people in or what it plans to do with them besides cause stress and fatigue, very little is actually explained. The claustrophobic terror of Cal and Becky’s situation could have propelled Into the Tall Grass well enough on its own, but Natali’s insistence on giving cryptic clues about the field’s mythology that never pay off muddy that atmospheric potential.

The filmmaker effectively portrayed a shifting nightmare space in his 1997 feature debut, Cube, so he should be the ideal director for Into the Tall Grass. The crucial difference between the two films is a simple matter of exposition — although the characters in Cube also find themselves trapped in a mysterious maze, its visually stunning geometric horrors and tightly paced action sequences are engaging enough on their own. Here, the monotony of merely watching underwritten leads wander through blades of grass for the entire first act does little to make the audience know or care about what sinister forces are at play.

As meandering as Into the Tall Grass is, there’s a distinct style to it that’s often missing from similar B-grade Netflix ventures. Natali recently worked on American Gods and the Hannibal TV series, both of which use stunning, highly stylized visuals to depict the danger often lurking in the American countryside. There are echoes of this care in the way that this film lingers on overhead shots of the swaying field and close-ups of crows’ eyes and bare feet wading through thick, dark mud. They’re everyday images captured with an eerie beauty that keep Into the Tall Grass from becoming an utterly forgettable exercise in disorienting horror.

A few answers about what exactly lurks within the grass are tossed out in the film’s finale, whose brief spurts of gore, coupled with horror veteran Wilson’s maniacally upbeat performance as an all-American man driven mad in claustrophobic quarters, finally give Into the Tall Grass some much-needed inertia. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save a film that almost instantly gets lost in the weeds.

Abby Monteil: @abbyemonteil Culture journalist and Vox Magazine writer who hasn't been adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph (yet).