Stephen King adaptations are having a cultural moment right now, spurred on by the financial – if not critical – success of IT. But not many of the recent crop of filmed adaptations have really grasped much more than the window dressing of what makes King's work distinctive. The best have probably been the J.J. Abrams-produced time-travel epic 11.22.63 and Mike Flanagan's take on Gerald's Game, while the worst has been the complete mishandling of King's The Dark Tower. In the Tall Grass, a new film based on a novella by King and his son, Joe Hill, lies somewhere between.
The film, and the novella on which it's based, start off with a brother and sister, Cal (Avery Whitted) and Becky (Laysla De Oliveira), driving through the middle of the country on their way to the West Coast. Becky is six months pregnant, and we infer that she's on her way to give the baby up for adoption. When Cal and Becky pull over to deal with a bout of morning sickness, they both hear a young boy calling for help in a nearby field full of tall grass. You see where this is going already if you read the title of the movie. The siblings wander into the grass to look for the boy, only to get lost. Eventually, they come across the boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) and his parents, Natalie (Rachel Wilson) and Ross (Patrick Wilson). The laws of time and space work differently in the grass, and the two families get themselves stuck in a loop until the arrival of Becky's estranged boyfriend, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson).
Director Vincenzo Natali has worked with this type of puzzle box film before, writing and directing the 1997 cult horror-sci-fi film Cube. Here, as in Cube, Natali works within the constraints of a minimal, claustrophobic setting. The encroaching grass not only gets the audience feeling as lost as the characters, but it makes for an effective disguise for a smaller budget. Unfortunately, Natali's script is nowhere near as effective. The plot gives us just enough information to get interested – what is this giant, psychic rock in the middle of the field, and why is Tobin's dad, Ross, so insistent on everyone touching it? Is this a metaphor for something? – and then never delivers on it except to say "Big rock bad. No touchy."
Patrick Wilson – by far the most experienced actor in the cast – gets plenty of opportunities to be absolutely terrifying as the rock-possessed Ross, echoing previous King bad dads like The Shining's Jack Torrance. The rest of the cast, though, is about as green as the grass in the field, inhabiting archetypes rather than believable characters.
In the end, In the Tall Grass feels like what it basically is – a side project. The novella on which it's based exists mainly as an excuse for a father and son to work on something together. Meanwhile, Natali is currently working on a TV series based on Joe Hill's Locke & Key comic book, starring Laysla De Oliveira as a main villain. In the Tall Grass feels like the two of them working on developing a relationship with Hill's work. If it works, great, but this preview of that collaboration feels somewhat inessential.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 2, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.