I wonder if there’s an enormous rock in the center of this movie with strange symbols carved into it that I can touch that will help me understand what I just saw. I didn’t know what to expect watching the new Netflix horror movie, In the Tall Grass, directed and adapted by Vincenzo Natali from a novella by father-and-son writing team Stephen King and Joe Hill, and I still don’t know what to make of it. At first, the story plays like an experiment: six characters in search of an exit, until Patrick Wilson flips his lid and starts making life unbearable for the other people trapped in the grass. There are a number of visual allusions to other Stephen King stories and adaptations. The enormous patch of earth and grass resembles the aerial view of the Overlook Hotel’s hedge-maze in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. I was reminded of Children of the Corn with the motorists driving along a section of Middle American road bordered only by that ominous grass.
Siblings Cal and pregnant Becky are on their way to San Diego to put her child up for adoption. They stop at a dilapidated church so Becky can throw up, because she’s pregnant of course. Throwing up is a tell-tale sign of pregnancy in movies, just as a random bloody nose is a symptom of cancer. Before they can leave, they hear a boy crying out somewhere deep in the tall grass. Cal decides to rescue the boy, and that’s when the trouble begins. Within minutes, they’re lost. It seems they keep getting turned around, and because the grass goes over their heads, they have no points of reference from which they can spot their car, or even the church. They vanish from each other’s sight. Cal finds the boy, Toby (Will Buie Jr.), and Becky is greeted by a pleasant Ross, Toby’s father. Ross tells Becky he’s been working on a way out of the tall grass. At the moment, Ross is trying to find his wife, Natalie. Toby shows Cal an enormous rock in a clearing. When he touches the rock, the hairs on his arm stand at attention. Becky catches up with them and something attacks the group.
We don’t know how much time has past when we get to the next day, which isn’t the next day at all but possibly several months later, and Becky’s ex-boyfriend, Travis (the father of her child) is searching for Cal and Becky. He’s decided to come clean and be a man. He stops at the church and sees Cal’s car in the parking area. Travis hears the same voice in the tall grass; the boy. He finds Toby as well as the desiccated body of Becky. She looks like she’s been here a very long time. The cycle of events appears to form a narrative loop. Right after Travis discovers Becky’s body, Ross and his family are arriving at the church when they hear Travis calling out to the boy. Their dog, Freddy chases after the voice. When I think the movie is trying to teach me a lesson about the value of teamwork, the story shifts. Becky and Cal are still alive, and they hook up with Travis, Toby, and then eventually Ross, who leads them back to the rock. Ross seems to have lost his mind in believing that when he touches the rock, he gains the “knowledge” of the tall grass and is able to find a way out of this maze.
I was reminded of King’s short story, N., from Just After Sunset, and the set of stones in a field that have the power to drive people mad. Ross’ wife reappears and warns the group to stay away from him. Ross kills his wife and gives chase to the remaining detainees. The problem with a movie like In the Tall Grass is that the story operates on its own set of rules and logic discernible only by the writers. In a maze story, the characters must abandon their logic and start playing by new rules. Where there are no rules, there is no reality. It could all be a dream. We don’t know. I have to commend the movie for stubbornly refusing to adhere to a conventional film narrative, but I also see the curveballs the story wants to throw just so it isn’t compared to a movie like Groundhog Day. The repetition (particularly with characters calling out each other’s names every five seconds) becomes frustrating after a time and it puts us right in the middle of that tall grass with the hapless motorists. You know what would’ve ended this movie? A lawnmower.
In the Tall Grass can be seen on Netflix.