Stephen King and Joe Hill‘s In the Tall Grass is a lean, mean novella. Its simple story allows the shocking graphic violence to have maximum impact. Writer/director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice) has adapted it for Netflix, expanding the brisk novella to a feature length film. What was once a simple narrative is now a strange journey into the surreal, using the novella as a mere skeleton.
Cal and Becky DeMuth (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira) are Irish twins traveling through America’s backroads to San Diego, where the six months pregnant Becky will meet the adoptive parents of her unborn baby. On a particularly deserted road surrounded by endless fields of tall, lush grass, the siblings hear a plea for help from a lost young boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.). The moment they step foot into the field, they quickly become lost themselves. Nothing is as it seems in this endless field, and there’s no apparent way out. It’s not just dehydration and the elements that pose a threat, but something evil as well.
This story may belong to the DeMuths, but the film’s strongest and best asset is actor Patrick Wilson. As Tobin’s father Ross Humboldt, Wilson brings his trademark charm. But there are many layers to Ross, and Wilson gets to stretch his acting limbs to the fullest, with reckless abandon and glee. Ross is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde type character that will make you laugh one moment and cower the next, and it’s riveting to watch Wilson’s portrayal.
Constant readers will be disappointed to know that the grisly gore and taboo-breaking moments of the novella have been expunged. That doesn’t mean this adaptation is bereft of gore and brutality, it’s just repurposed and less explicit. Natali aimed to craft a narrative with a different brand of horror and more emotional heft, shifting the direction and outcome entirely. Becky’s relationship with her baby’s father, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), is expanded to the point that it becomes the driving force. Beyond that, though, these characters are paper-thin.
Natali gives his own twist and interpretation to the mythology behind the bizarre set of circumstances these wayward travelers have entered. It’s through this mythology that Natali goes for full blown surrealism, both in narrative construct and aesthetic. It makes for a more visually engaging film, but taking this particular idiosyncratic approach to the story tends to confuse what’s actually happening on screen at points. It also creates gaps and loose ends for a lot of the characters; it’s the type of conceit that’s better enjoyed if you don’t stop and ask any questions along the way.
For this adaptation, Natali studied the novella extensively and created his own sumptuous yet sinister beast, but it often feels as if he wanted to make the viewer feel just as crazed and lost as the characters within the tall grass. Namely because while he nails the menacing tone, and it is fascinating to watch, the characters are massively underdeveloped. The mythology may have received an expansion, but he forgot about the human players. Only Wilson takes what little he has and spins it into gold.
In the Tall Grass premiered at Fantastic fest and releases on Netflix on October 4.