Given the strength of its pedigree and the intrigue of its premise, it’s rather astonishing how fast Vincenzo Natali’s “In the Tall Grass” completely loses your interest. Adapted from a recent piece of short fiction that Stephen King and his son Joe Hill co-wrote for Esquire Magazine, the film opens by introducing us to another of the shifting nightmare spaces that Natali first explored so effectively in 1997’s “Cube.” This time around the location isn’t an inescapable prison full of horrifying death traps, but rather a deep and disorienting field of — you guessed it — tall grass that’s located somewhere in the American Midwest (where exactly in the American Midwest is something of a plot point in a movie that only has something of a plot).
If that sounds like a less frightening scenario than just about anything the director has started with before, that’s because it is, but viewers familiar with the source material (or any of King’s work, for that matter) know that evil loves to disguise itself in the mundane. The problem with this endless and instantly forgettable genre exercise — doomed to haunt the darkest recesses of Netflix’s servers for all time — isn’t that it lacks for mystery; the problem is that the film immediately gets mired in the same mystery that drives its paper-thin characters insane. If nothing else, you’ll know how they feel.
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“In the Tall Grass” is only a few minutes old before it becomes lost in the weeds, but a brief prologue gives us plenty of information to get started. Becky Demuth (Laysla De Oliveira) and her noxious older brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are speeding their way through some “Jeepers Creepers” territory when we first catch up with them. Outside the car, it looks as if someone has painted over a massacre with pretty watercolors: Blue skies, green fields, abandoned businesses, a too-quiet church. Meanwhile, a strange tension gestates in the front seat. Becky, tense and queasy as she heads toward the end of her second trimester, tries not to puke as she watches her sibling chow down on a sandwich. We’re more perturbed by his overprotective energy — Cal seems all too eager for us to confuse him for the father. There’s a sense that he might be driving Becky to get an abortion, but in that case it would be hard to rationalize why they left San Diego for a less hospitable stretch of the country.
Becky stops to barf across the street from a creaky roadside church, and that’s when she hears it: A young boy’s voice calling for help from inside the veritable ocean of tall grass nearby. The siblings reluctantly step into the verdant sea, calling out to the child and each other. And just like that, they’ve walked straight into an ancient trap, though anyone wondering how it works and who might have set it would be wise to abandon hope of Natali answering those questions in even a remotely concrete way (the film is far more opaque than the short story on which it’s based, which itself preyed upon a vague sense of hopelessness and inescapable regret). The grass seems to be messing with Becky and her brother, carrying their voices in a way that makes it impossible for them to find each other or anyone else. Basic spatial relations become a cruel joke, as straight lines become circles and even time seems to bend in a loop. Also, there might be monsters? Natali keeps the jump-scares to a minimum, but one well-placed jolt leaves us plenty tense about whatever might be lurking in the field, or under it.
Becky eventually finds the little boy. His name is Tobin (played by Will Buie Jr. in one of those exquisite kid performances that tiptoes along the fine line between vulnerable and sinister), and he’s been stuck inside the grass for way too long. By the time Becky finds him, he’s already prone to spouting ominous King-isms like “The tall grass knows everything” and “the field doesn’t move dead things around.” Tobin doesn’t issue any such warnings about the giant rock that chants with the voices of everyone who’s died in the grass, or about his disconcertingly upbeat dad Ross (a fantastic, ham-tastic Patrick Wilson, again subverting his all-American squareness with a performance that channels the religious zealotry that Marcia Gay Harden brought to “The Mist”). And in a story built on wet mud, it only gets even harder to find solid footing once Becky’s actual baby daddy (Harrison Gilbertson) shows up.
In “Cube,” Natali was able to make vagueness into a virtue; the danger was as clear as the reasons behind it were unknowable, and the mechanics of the film’s geometric hell prison were so vividly illustrated that wondering about who might have engineered them was half the fun. Here, the slipperiness of the plotting is frustrating from the start, as Natali directs each scene with all the clarity of a broken compass. He’s a master of atmospherics, and has no trouble insinuating all sorts of hidden dangers, but there’s nothing enjoyable about watching people try to solve a puzzle that doesn’t have any firm rules.
And “people” is a generous term for these two-dimensional characters, as neither Becky nor Cal is ever developed beyond the basic info we learn about them in the first scene; in a film that flirts with ideas of redemption while trying to disguise its “Groundhog Day”-like structure, there’s something distressingly glib about how Becky’s experience starts to influence her feelings about the fetus. “In the Tall Grass” is just a few minutes old before the emptiness beneath its Escherisms creeps up into the soil, and the movie only grows more enervating with each new wrinkle Natali introduces.
Wilson’s crazed performance helps ground the happenings to something tangible from time to time, and a few compelling driblets of context are galvanized with some proper ultra-violence (those “monsters” eventually show their faces, and you won’t soon forget what they look like), but the film’s broad gestures towards family bonds and past mistakes never sprout into anything more than a trail of wayward seeds. The only persistently enjoyable thing about “In the Tall Grass” is the irony of Natali repeating the same mistakes over and over and over and over again.
“In the Tall Grass” will be available to stream on Netflix starting October 4.