Coming to this new Netflix horror over a week after its launch and, being a user of Twitter, I was subjected to a range of diverse opinions. And some strong emotions too. At first I thought, “what’s all the fuss about?” In the Tall Grass got off to a promising start – the production was slick and stylish, the idea was novel and, at first glance, quite neat and concise. But as the running time dragged on, In the Tall Grass progressively lost its way.
The film, directed by Vincenzo Natali, and based on a novella co-written by father and son pair Stephen King and Joe Hill, begins with brother Cal (Avery Whitted) and sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) driving down a long straight road towards San Diego. The road is flanked by infinite fields of tall green grass. The only break to this visual monotony is a small wooden church, seemingly deserted despite the cars parked out in front. The pair stop in front of the church so 6-months pregnant Becky can vomit by the side of the road. You know the film is going to deliver some disgusts later on as Becky wipes away chunks of vomit still clinging to her cheeks. Before they get going to continue their journey, they hear a young boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), calling out for help in the field. He is lost and there appears to be a woman (his mother?) with him. Things immediately feel off and so Becky and Cal venture into the grass to rescue Tobin.
The pair quickly become lost. Nothing is quite what it seems. The locations of sounds are deceiving, moving around them, as if the field is deliberately trying to trap them in a maze. Other characters show up – Tobin’s mother (Rachel Wilson) and father (Patrick Wilson), and Becky’s ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson). They’re all lost and stuck in a time-loop – Travis came looking for Becky and Cal because they didn’t show up in San Diego months ago, so how did he arrive in the field before them?
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The grass is not the only danger. Tobin’s father is not quite what he seems and there’s a huge rock sat in a clearing in the field, exhibiting pre-historic carvings and radiating a mysterious power. Perhaps this power has been a corrupting influence on Tobin’s father?
In the Tall Grass began almost as a botanical horror, about losing sight of those close to you and of looking out for yourself versus others. Would you venture into the tall grass to help someone lost if you could get lost yourself? But we then move on to time distortion and ideas about life’s branching paths. And the rock that crushes it all is the ritualistic tribal nonsense in its later stages.
I haven’t read the King and Hill novella so I cannot comment on how faithful this film is, but I would like to think that the novella had a better editor. There is a trend with recent horror films (whether it’s on the increase or I’ve just become more aware of it, I don’t know) to layer ideas upon ideas, to such an eye-watering extreme that you leave the cinema feeling baffled. Some films manage this better than others – while there are those who would disagree, I would include Ari Aster’s films in this category. Others, such as the Suspiria remake – and again some would strongly disagree – should have seen many more minutes fall to the cutting floor.
In the Tall Grass‘s initial clear concept becomes increasingly crowded and while I’m not against works rich with different meanings and metaphors, I do not care to speculate further on this one. Leaving you with questions, to allow your imagination to ponder after the credits roll, is a strength – but a film, or any story, needs to earn it, and whether or not you wish to Google for different answers, the story must be satisfying, regardless of loose ends. But I will choose clarity over a tangled mess, every time.
In the Tall Grass begins well but becomes increasingly lost as baffling ideas are gradually stacked on top of one another. Dare I say it could have used a lawnmower?