Friday, October 04, 2019

In the Tall Grass: More Stephen King on Netflix

Say what you will about the cult kids in Children of the Corn, but at least they reaped bountiful harvests. In contrast, nothing productive will come from this evil stretch of grassland. Once wayward motorists enter, they can never find their way out in Vicenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass, an adaptation of Stephen King & Joe Hill’s novella, which premieres today on Netflix.

Stephen King fanatics should note this takes place in Kansas, instead of his mini-Midwest world, encompassing Gatlin and Hemingford Home, Nebraska, but the scenery and sinister goings-on are not all that different. Kansas is a long, flat state to drive through, but grown siblings Becky (the pregnant one) and Cal DeMuth will still regret pulling over near a strange church. Hearing young Tobin Humboldt’s cries for help, they venture into the field, where they quickly find themselves lost and separated.

Apparently, young Humboldt has been in that grassy labyrinth for quite a while. One of those dusty cars parked in front of the church belongs to his parents, who are also trapped inside (evidently all those abandoned vehicles arouse no interest in the Highway Patrol). Tobin is a little weird, but he has some useful information for Cal when they stumble across each other, like the field never moves dead things. However, his father Ross just radiates bad vibes when Becky encounters him. Meanwhile, Travis McKean follows his long missing girlfriend Becky down that lonesome stretch of highway and into the tall grass.

Netflix’s previous King films were quite good, especially the terrific Gerald’s Game, so it is disappointing Tall Grass does not measure up to their standard. The set-up is reasonably intriguing, but as time and reality start to warp, the film loses any semblance of internal logic. The degree to which the film unequivocally equates Evangelical Christianity with primeval sacrificial death cults is also slightly churlish, even by King’s standards. Regardless, the frequency at which things start appearing just to dislodge the road-blocked narrative, like the bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, is conspicuously problematic.

Brazilian thesp Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, and Harrison Gilbertson are all pretty believable and compelling as the DeMuths and McKean, respectively. Unfortunately, Patrick Wilson seems to be playing Ross Humboldt like a reprise of his role in the notoriously strident and universally panned The Ledge, which is not a winning strategy. Weirdly, Will Buie Jr. is sometimes quite creepy as Tobin, but other times he seems innocent and vulnerable—and it is unclear whether these tonal shifts are intentional or accidental.

As the film goes on and on, viewers are likely to feel like they too are trapped in a remote Kansas field without exit. Evidently, this is Natali’s thing, having previously helmed the thematically similar Cube and the excellent horror film, Haunter, which was also distinguished by its keen atmosphere of claustrophobia. That is the better film to stream, or even the original Children of the Corn. Not recommended, In the Tall Grass launches today (10/4) on Netflix.