Uncle would get agitated when he couldn’t mow the lawn before trucking out of state. As he explains it, dangers abound should them blades of green get to defy their shortness. But when he thinks of Texas brown snakes and Zika-bearing mosquitoes, authors Stephen King and Joe Hill sense madness, paranoia and illimitable terror — an observation they put into writing across two issues of Esquire.
In adapting the words, Cube and Splice’s Vincenzo Natali — on top of everything else — also sees room for time loops, emphasized violence, new interactions and a platform for philosophy. In concept the augments ensure this telling of In the Tall Grass is distinctively Natali’s; in reality they are proof of follies taking roots in the field. Had the writer-director spent more time, or the same as however long was used to craft those oftentimes startlingly breathtaking visuals, on making his flourishes matter, he would have given Netflix’s (feature-length) freaky sector a bragging right rather than yet-another interesting pratfall like Spectral and The Cloverfield Paradox.
That last sentence means In the Tall Grass displays only promise before collapsing (if you’re interested, Spectral self-combusts when Bose-Einstein condensate takes center stage while Paradox cracks when it tries to link up with J.J. Abrams’ mystery pasture). For one-third of the nightmare that siblings Cal (Avery Whitted) and expecting Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is experiencing, which begins after they respond to young Tobin’s (Will Buie Jr.) cries for help from within the grass, Natali sticks close or semi-close to King and Hill, maintaining the suspense and mystery in the transfer to the screen. When he takes the whole affair beyond the writers’ vision, the film turns oppressive and weird to its detriment; none of the extra peppering is successful in drawing us in due to a combo of Natali’s muddled judgment as a director in addressing a character-based revelation and Natali’s failure as a writer to make said characters worth caring. So when the decision to, ahem, elevate this horror above the murderous-grass concept is made — the field being a form for hell; exit is found through redemption — it’s a lost cause. It’s the cause behind the film’s departure from the interesting to the frustrating. It’s the reason why one of the (two) best features of the adaptation, the inclusion of Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) aka the initially absentee father of Becky’s baby as one of the souls the grass absorbs, is downgraded to be a drag.
That being said, in any state, there’s no surpassing Patrick Wilson in In the Tall Grass. How the actor tunes his stares and chords as he embodies Ross, or Tobin’s apathetic father, is just enjoyable to notice. It’s flair on top of the question-burger that Natali’s storytelling ultimately conjures.
But, as mentioned above, it is also in Natali that we find another welcoming person in the production: his inner visualist. With d.p. Craig Wrobleski’s help, and some immaculate top-down shots, the grass gets to sway in ways that grant it a most-unholy sentience, the ability to transform so that it can prey. King and Hill should be proud upon seeing how threatening as a visual the setting is right now, and frankly this is the finest demonstration yet of Natali’s manipulation on (closed) spaces. If only his writing here had reached the same high.