Written and Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Based on the story by Stephen King and Joe Hill
Starring Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson, Avery Whitted, Laysla De Oliveira, Will Buie Jr.
In The Tall Grass is a compact story that is the kind one is used to seeing in decades past. A place one might find in The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. There are no politics, only a weird set of circumstances that find people coming from out of nowhere into the seemingly innocent depths of a grass field, only to be lost in a circle outside of time.
A brother and sister are travelling through Kansas on their way to San Diego when they pull over just outside of Topeka. The sister, Becky (De Oliveira) is six months pregnant with the father nowhere in sight. We don’t quite know what is in store for her in San Diego, but we are clear this is a momentous decision of which she is still unsure.
As the sister recovers from another round of nausea, they hear a voice in the tall grass on the side of the road. It is a little boy, lost, and by sound only a few feet away. Becky convinces her brother Cal (Whitted) they should go get him, even after hearing the boy’s mother tell the boy to be quiet. Cal parks the car in the parking lot of the abandoned church across the road and joins his sister at the edge of the foliage.
Once inside the tall grass, the brother and sister are separated and neither is having any luck locating the boy. There is an amazing sequence when they decide to jump at the same time to find each other over the grass. They do this twice. The results are unsettling.
Months later, the father of Becky’s child drives up to the abandoned church. He sees Cal’s car along with many other vehicles. There is no one in the church. He follows clues into the grass across the way into the labyrinth, finding the young boy and discovers that there may be no way out.
Natali has taken a relatively sparse work by King and Hill and made it into a visual wonder. His skill with imagery gives the viewer a sense of claustrophobia with people right out in the open, looking at planes flying across the sky. In keeping the story focused on a relatively few set of characters, he is able to ratchet up the tension. He combines the supernatural element with actual character development usually untouched in a story like this one.
We see many familiar tropes of King’s writings. Patrick Wilson’s Ross Humboldt and Buie Jr. ‘s Tobin would be at home in Derry, Maine or at The Overlook Hotel. Becky and Cal could have ended up meeting with the Children of the Corn. The point for King is not as much the characters as the situations with which they are met. Truths about humanity are exposed through the mechanics of a plot meant to spin us into oblivion.
There are several good lines in the film. I will not share them here out of context. I enjoyed seeing actors that seemed familiar, but I had not seen before, if I am to believe IMdb. In particular, De Oliveira gives a vibrant performance as a woman on a journey interrupted. She has a presence that burns on the screen.
Patrick Wilson is unheralded for his ability to move back and forth between solid good guy and sinister creep from role to role. I don’t think I have ever seen an actor able to give off the best and worst vibes at will.
There are the drawbacks one might expect to see in any film. People make decisions that fly in the face of logic to move the plot forward and keep the mysterious forces on the offensive. There are few stories that push someone with common sense into an unwinnable situation. The important thing is there is no real attempt at over explaining anything. The mystery will be there long after we’re gone…and back.
This is a small film, but a good one. If you have Netflix and some free time, it’s worth a spin.
(***1/2 out of *****)