by Kayla McCulloch on Oct 10, 2019

Clowns. Cars. Hotels. Cell phones. Now grass. Vincenzo Natali’s Netflix Original In the Tall Grass is one of four Stephen King projects released this year alone – six if you count Shudder’s Creepshow (2019- ) and Hulu’s Castle Rock [2018- ], both of which draw from the author’s works and add their own spin. In traditional King fashion, Grass’ story takes a seemingly mundane aspect of American life and makes it terrifying. Also in typical King style, something perplexing gets lost in translation from page to screen. Based on a short story King co-wrote with his son Joe Hill for Esquire’s June/July and August issues in 2012, In the Tall Grass takes shots at relationships, religion, and American values — all within the confines of some outwardly innocuous farmland somewhere in the Midwestern U.S. Even though certain patches of Tall Grass are malnourished, the end result is paradoxically in need of pruning.

It’s understood from the start that In the Tall Grass is about the nation's heartland — brother and sister Cal (Avery Whitted) and Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) drive through the prairie in a minivan on a lonely two-lane highway, her reading a book on her pregnant belly, him devouring a fast-food cheeseburger. This land is unfamiliar to them. It serves only as a passageway from whatever Big City USA they came from on their way to California. Becky’s morning sickness prompts them to pull over on the side of the road, whereupon Cal notices a decrepit church nearby with a packed parking lot. No one else seems to be around, though — until they hear the cries of a young boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) from inside the lush grasslands that edge the highway for miles in both directions.

As any two decent people would do, Cal and Becky respond to this call for help, pulling the car into the lot and venturing into the vegetation. Unbeknownst to them, it’s the worst possible mistake they could have made. Inside this foliage and under the blaring summer sun, the two slowly begin to understand that they’ve immersed themselves in something deceitful and malevolent — two adjectives that no one would typically assign to something as commonplace and benign as grass. Constantly shifting, ever-changing, the green sea that they’ve entered is more treacherous than they ever could have imagined. They aren’t alone, either. Tobin’s mom Natalie (Rachel Wilson) and dad Ross (Patrick Wilson) are out there somewhere, along with the family dog… and possibly others, too.

Dismissing shoddy dialogue and unexceptional performances as par for the course in direct-to-Netflix adaptations of relatively obscure Stephen King stories, it’s worth focusing instead on what differentiates In the Tall Grass from other streaming B-movie horror features. In other words, let’s talk about Patrick Wilson. Perhaps known best for his integral part in both the Insidious and Conjuring franchises, Wilson has proven himself to be a fundamental player in contemporary horror. His willingness to appear in something as trivial as In the Tall Grass despite his star clout speaks to the kind of talent he brings to the table. He doesn’t just show up and phone it in for the paycheck; he’s firing on all cylinders here. As the only recognizable face in a field of mostly-newcomers, Wilson’s dedication to the role is enough to elevate the film a few notches.

Besides serving as a juicy actor’s showcase, Wilson’s father figure fills another purpose by conveying the film’s inspired (albeit underdeveloped) theme. Addressing Cal, Becky, and his family in a central clearing, Ross stands — sweaty and seething — next to a gigantic rock that’s dark as night and covered in ancient carvings. He pontificates: This rock is the exact center of the United States. Touch it and you will know the way out, but you won’t want to leave. While the film refuses to delve deeper into the power of the boulder, it appears to function as some sort of heart — both for the tall grass and the nation itself. Ross goes on to explain that, while he used to be a religious, God-fearing man, he realizes now that the rock, this geographic nucleus, is where genuine salvation can be found. The idea that some Americans can conflate patriotism and nationalism with faith is a fascinating one, especially in a horror film. If Natali would’ve leaned into this more, it’s possible that In the Tall Grass could’ve been a searing work of slash-and-burn cultural critique. As it stands, this theme never grows into anything more than a promising little bud.

Four decades after Brian De Palma brought Carrie (1976) to the big screen and kicked off a flow of Stephen King adaptations that surges and slows but never ceases, it’s evident that most of the author’s horror stories might work extraordinarily well on the page but rarely work well when adapted to the big screen. Given the success of Stand by Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999), this rule of thumb seems to apply only to the author’s more frightening works. The key might lie in substantially departing from the source material. There’s a reason Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is not only one of the most beloved King horror adaptations, but also the film for which the author still harbors plenty of contempt. There was an opportunity for Natali to ramp up the short story’s subtler undertones and skip over some of its more sod-based scares, but the filmmaker opted instead for a more direct route. This path might’ve worked well for an 85-minute film — short enough to rob the viewer of the opportunity to stop and think about the logic of what they’re seeing on-screen — but it can’t sustain its energy for a 100-plus-minute time frame. Consequently, In the Tall Grass ends up feeling like an unintentionally tart allegory for the streaming phenomenon itself. What happens when a Netflix Original enters the field? It disappears into a vast, smothering thicket of sameness, where its feeble voice lures viewers into an inescapable purgatory.

Rating: C-

In the Tall Grass is now available to stream from Netflix.