From the perspective of a reader, book-to-film adaptations are a mixed bag that generally skews toward the negative. For every The Godfather, there are one or two Gulliver’s Travels, and that’s being conservative. Sometimes, the movies are great on their own merits but don’t meet the impossible standards set by fans of the source material. But every now and again a movie enters rarified air, where it is universally considered better than the media from which it came. Think Fight Club or Jaws.
Book-to-film adaptations are one thing, but turning short stories into movies is a different beast. Novels provide hundreds of pages from which a director can piece together his vision for a story, whereas short fiction, at most, proffers a measly fifty or so. By necessity, these movies have to improvise–a lot– if they want to make the hour and a half run time. Usually, there are changes made to key plot points and new storylines invented all together. Almost always, these changes have a diverse effect, splitting audiences down the middle.
In the Tall Grass (dir. Vincenzo Natali) is a film based on a short story co-written by Stephen King and Joe Hill that hit Netflix earlier this month. The story’s inherent weirdness lends itself to great television, but it’s pretty simplistic: some people walk into a– you guessed it– field of tall grass, and some supernatural stuff goes down. You’ll have to read to the end to see what happens, but there’s not a ton there to turn it into a full movie. The good news, though, is that the man calling the shots has a lot of experience working on weird TV shows (Orphan Black, Wayward Pines) and his imagination is on full display. The movie is an absolute mind trip, gallivanting in a thousand different directions and the finished product is a solid work of disorientation fiction that will leave audiences unsure of what they just watched. Depending on the person, this will be one of the best horror movies of the year or a top-ten worst.
Cal (Avery Whitted) and Becky (Laysla de Oliveira) are two siblings in the midst of a cross country road trip. Becky is pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s child, so she and Cal are taking a trip through the heart of the US that will lead them to San Francisco where Becky plans to give the baby up for adoption. Their plans come to a halt when they hear a small child calling for help from somewhere in a field on the side of the road. As with all horror movies, they decide that they just can’t leave the extraordinary situation so they saunter in to find him.
From there, the movie turns into a bad acid trip. Cal and Becky get separated and cannot find each other again, not because they’re bad with directions, but because the field doesn’t want them to. The grass in this story is sentient, and it controls time and space. One second the siblings are five feet from each other and the next they’re on opposite sides of the field, and it’s all at the whim of the grass. The only things it does not have control over, as Cal and Becky quickly discover, as dead.
The lost boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) is not the only person who can’t find his way out of the field. Tobin and his family have been trapped inside for days. The only person who can navigate the maze is Tobin’s father, Ross, and the only reason he can do so is because he’s given himself over to the field– he’s discovered the field’s power and become one with it. Oh, and, it’s made him murderous.
About halfway through, Becky’s baby daddy, Travis, spots her car on the side of the road. Two months have passed since Becky and Cal have gone missing, and Travis, being the saint that he is, ventures into the grass on his own accord once he realizes they might be in there.
The next ten minutes are the movie’s make-or-break point as it decides to eliminate the concept of time all together. Chronologically, Travis enters the grass after Cal and Becky, so it’s incredibly jarring in the next scene when he hears the pair enter the grass for the first time once he’s already been inside for a while. It’s impossible anywhere else, but not in the grass. Travis finds Cal and Becky and tells him they’ve been gone for two months. They assure him this is an impossibility because they only left town a couple of days ago–but somehow Travis got in there before them? Figure that one out.
On top of all the crazy time shenanigans, Ross Humbolt is trying to kill everyone. If people follow his rules and touch “The Rock” they’ll see the way, too. If they don’t, they have to die, and he’s going to kill them over and over again. The grass, it seems, operates as a closed loop, where everyone is destined to die and reenter the the next day, until they succumb and touch this big black rock in the center. Weird, right?
It gets worse. As this point, going into more detail means major spoilers, but everyone not in league with the big bad wolf has to find a way out during the small increments of time from when they enter the field at the beginning of the day and when Ross crushes their windpipes to signal sundown. The grass continues to play everyone against each other and the whole movie echoes Predator, but instead of creepy looking alien the enemy is a middle aged white guy who used to sell real estate.
In the Tall Grass could best be summed up as an experience as opposed to a movie. The story is impossible to follow, but the adrenaline rush that comes from the repeated attempts at escape is next to none. Hope is nonexistent–even the color scheme is dark and bleak– and the characters are up against impossible odds. The close-ups of people running through the grass create an experience of tunnel vision that traps viewers and characters alike. There’s no way out, for anyone. It takes a certain level of masochism to make it through this film. It’s disappointing that there’s no one waiting after the credits to hand out “I survived the Tall Grass” tee-shirts, because those would be well-deserved.
At times, it feels like the film is a bit too disheveled, like there should have been at least a little more clarity. The director gets just as much of a kick out of messing with the audience as the grass does the characters. Expecting a coherent narrative? Good luck. The film–probably intentionally– leaves unanswered questions. Closure is not the Grass’s M.O. Fans of Scooby Doo should avoid this one, because there’s no way in hell to catch the bad guy– Velma wouldn’t even say “Jenkies!” once.
In the Tall Grass asks a lot of its audience. It gets into the action quickly, but it’s so jarring that it’s easy to see how the lack of coherence could turn someone off. Stellar performances from everyone involved should help with audience retention, but at some point, you can either deal with the craziness or you can’t. This is a film that knows what it’s trying to accomplish, and it does that rather well. However, it offers itself on a “take it or leave it” basis. No one will walk away from this thinking the movie was just “okay.” It’s polarizing by design. The film doesn’t scare in the traditional ways, but it fosters an environment of discomfort and unsettlement that will leave a lasting impact. Stick it out, and you’ll be thankful that your bed stays in one place while you sleep at night. Change the channel, and you’ll be lost in the field forever. Either way, the grass won’t care.