Fantastic Fest 2019: Claustrophobic Creepiness Abounds IN THE TALL GRASS

The latest from Canadian Cube director Vincenzo Natali is among the better recent Stephen King adaptations

Canadian director Vincenzo Natali is no stranger to self-imposed limitations. His debut feature, Cube, crafted a wonderfully tense sci-fi thriller out of six actors trapped in two multi-colored rooms. His follow-up, Nothing, put two of Cube’s actors in front of a white backdrop and made a hilarious existential comedy out of the whole ordeal. While his later TV and film projects have widened in scope, it’s still a blast to check out whatever Natali’s working on next. My favorite of this later bunch, Splice, reveled in how it could fascinate and repulse its audience at the same time. When I heard that the next Natali flick would not only be playing at Fantastic Fest, but that the film was an adaptation of Stephen King and Joe Hill’s ultra-claustrophobic novella In the Tall Grass, the film quickly earned a place on my most-anticipated list. The wait was worth it — In the Tall Grass is a chilling combination of Natali’s confined style and King and Hill’s expansive love of the bizarre.

The film follows sibling duo Cal (Avery Whitted) and Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) as they road trip through America’s heartland for San Diego. Becky, six months pregnant, is still reeling from being abandoned by her boyfriend, Travis; overprotective brother Cal, though, seems a little to eager to swoop in and save the day. When the pair stop by a roadside field, though, Cal and Becky hear a little boy (Will Buie Jr.) and his family scream for help, trapped within the tall grass. Becky and Cal immediately rush to their aid, but they quickly learn that everything — time, space, life, and death — works differently in the tall grass.

Much like how Natali created a seemingly endless labyrinth out of two Cube sets, it’s impressive how Natali pulls off the same trick using a small (or is it?) grass field. Here, though, Natali has that Netflix money to widen the scope of his vision, and In the Tall Grass is able to pull off some truly creepy sequences within its titular setting. Though very much landlocked — a character remarks that they’re in the exact center of the continental United States — the cast are frequently shown as small specks in an infinite-looking sea of green, imbuing In the Tall Grass with an isolating atmosphere that’s as expansive as it is claustrophobic.

Also a delightful surprise is the film’s production design — the field itself is menacing and wild, and the few signs of civilization the characters come across are fittingly decrepit. At the same time, there is a timelessness to some of these structures — as if at some point, thanks to the work of what lurks in the field, they reached a level of peak abandonment before plateauing into immortality. A key set in the center of the field (“The center of the center!”) also manages to look both futuristic and wholly ancient at the same time. It’s a simple yet effective extension of how the field plays with its endless looping of time, and is one of many creative extensions Natali uses to flesh out his source material.

Another is his expansion of the original novella’s cast. Natali retains much of the story’s original lineup, but a new character is Harrison Gilbertson’s Travis, the runaway father of Becky’s unborn baby who goes looking for his ex after she fails to make it to San Diego. The slow, time-twisting nature by which Travis joins those trapped in the field is a gut-churning blossom of storytelling plants by Natali’s script, as is the ever-tempestuous triangle between Travis, Becky, and creepy-as-hell Cal. Both cast and director are clearly having a blast with the material they’re working with — none more so than Patrick Wilson as Ross Humboldt, the scene-chewing, dad-joke-spewing father of the boy trapped in the tall grass. Wilson’s Ross has a perpetual grin plastered on his face, with a wildly unpredictable villainy and sincerity at each turn. It’s refreshing to see Wilson in such a role after decades playing more straight-laced characters — and he delivers much of In the Tall Grass’ creepiest moments as he does the comedic ones.

As with similar extrapolations of Stephen King short stories, some of the film’s additions are less successful than others, particularly as the film veers into the truly bizarre in its second half. While there are moments of total creepiness in these sequences, one can’t help but feel that the emotional beats they hit would have landed better if Natali stuck closer to the reserved and confined nature of In the Tall Grass’ first hour. Part of what makes King’s books, and horror novels in general, such thrilling reads is how much our imagination can take over for us — an electrifying and personal sense of ambiguity that often struggles to transition well to the big screen. On the whole, though, Natali sticks to the sparse, dread-driven storytelling that makes his films such effective and evocative watches, making In the Tall Grass one of the better recent King adaptations.

In the Tall Grass had its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest, and will be released on Netflix October 4th, 2019.

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