John C Adams Reviews 'In The Tall Grass' from Netflix
In The Tall Grass (Netflix, 2019, dir Vincenzo Natali)
This horror film (90 minutes) is based upon the 2012 Stephen King/Joe Hill novella of the same name. My better half recommended this one evening because he'd loved the novella. I was sufficiently disturbed by the opening picture and tagline to give it a go.
Brother and sister Cal and Becky are shown driving through an isolated area where farmland stretches as far as the eye can see. The road is deserted. Eventually, Becky wants a rest stop and they pull over on the side of the road right by an abandoned church. It all has a very Midwest feel. The siblings are travelling across country to San Diego for Becky to have her baby and give the child up for adoption, a decision about which she is bravely trying to convince herself she is at peace. They hear the voices of a young lad calling to them from the tall grass lining the side of the road and of his mother trying to quiet him. Becky and Cal wade into the tall grass to try to rescue the child and his mother, but the siblings quickly become separated.
The tall grass resembles a mixture of bamboo and maize. The film establishes quickly that this pesky stuff has a life of its own. It's all pretty eerie. A dead dog's rotting carcass. More voices shouting from different parts of the grassy expanse. And, when Becky and Cal manage to leap up and catch a glimpse of the vista, the tall grass demonstrates an uncanny ability to stretch on forever. They are severely disorientated, but running into the child who called to them (Tobin) and his parents doesn't help them to get their bearings. Instead, it introduces greater tension and danger. This reaches terrible levels when the group, in fluctuating combinations that prove how impossibly difficult it is for any of them to trust each other, discover an ancient Native American black rock where human sacrifices have taken place.
In some senses, the story line that unfolded was very simple. The tall grass is powerful in its own right. It traps people who enter and prevents their escape. Any attempt to shout a warning simply lures more unwitting travellers inside. When they die, it sucks their blood down into the ground for the benefit of the rock skulking at the centre of the tall grass. The constant shifting of the group, with allies turning on each other as the paranoia induced by separation, isolation, exhaustion and dehydration takes hold, keeps the action moving along. In some ways, this disguised how simple the storyline actually was.
What was complex was the resolution. It isn't easy to engineer a happy ending in an essentially static environment. The black stone is unremittingly evil, and the tall grass loves to do its bidding. The same cycle of evil is perpetrated over and over. They can't just suddenly yield to a better nature they don't possess, letting the travellers go. What factor can the people lost inside the tall grass bring bear to circumvent the causal chain that, day after day, leads Becky to listen to Tobin's cries for help and then act upon them by running inside the tall grass to rescue him?
The answer lies with a father's love for his unborn child. When Becky doesn't arrive in San Diego, the father of her baby, Travis, comes to investigate her disappearance. He demonstrates a marginally better ability to overcome the dangers posed by the tall grass, but to save Becky and the baby he must short circuit the cries for help that lure her in and replace them with a shouted warning of his own to get back in the car and drive away.
In some ways, it was good that the story was quite simple. The resolution took a great deal of concentration to understand on a first watch. I got there, but the online debates raging over what the ending represents show that I wasn't alone in wondering what it all meant. This was one of the most original and inventive plots I'd encountered in a long time. In TV, fiction and film it is easy to feel that we keep telling each other the same stories, over and over and over with just superficial variations. 'In The Tall Grass' challenged this assumption and kept me hooked right until the end.
Thank you so much for reading my first ever 'Weekend Watchers' post. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below about this film or anything else Stephen King related or to suggest other horror films you would recommend.
My next post is another 'Monday Musings' post. Here's a teaser to get you musing on which book I might be reviewing...
"One of the best books on why we all need to own less stuff I've come across. Still a tad sanctimonious, but that comes with the territory."