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‘In the Tall Grass’ comes up a bit short

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What if you heard a voice calling to you, emerging from an unseen child lost somewhere in a field of tall grass? If that voice asked you for help, would you venture forth to offer your assistance? What if you went in … and couldn’t find your way out?

That’s the deceptively simple conceit of “In the Tall Grass,” a film directed by Vincenzo Natali from a script Natali adapted from the novella of the same name co-written by Stephen King and Joe Hill. It’s pastoral horror at its most elemental, a tale of terror where unexplained forces can trap the innocent in circumstances that they cannot understand – and cannot escape.

The film operates largely in the realm of atmospheric scares, relying on the seeming innocence of the natural setting to evoke the fear-feeding tension. It isn’t always successful, with stretches that don’t quite cohere as well as they might; the plot takes on a complexity that isn’t always easy to follow. But with some brutally bloody moments and an enervating audio/visual style, you might find yourself unable to look away.

Becky (Laysla De Oliveira, “Code 8”) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted, “The Vanishing of Sidney Hall”) are driving cross-country. She’s six months pregnant, heading to San Diego in an effort to get some sort of fresh start after her boyfriend didn’t take the news of the baby at all well.

When she’s struck with a bout of morning sickness, she has Cal pull the car over somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They wind up across the street from a dilapidated church, surrounded by fields of tall grass as far as the eye can see. Suddenly, they hear a voice. A child, crying out that he’s lost in the grass and could someone help him find his way out. Becky and Cal make their way into the field to track down the child and help him.

But it isn’t as easy as all that.

There’s something … wrong … in the field. Time and space work differently in the grass, something that Becky discovers when she and Cal are separated. No matter what they do or how hard they try, they can’t seem to find one another. They can hear each other, but any effort to reconnect only makes clear that the laws of the universe work differently here.

Becky stumbles upon Tobin (Will Buie Jr., TV’s “Bunk’d”), the child whose voice they heard, but there’s something off about him. Ditto when Cal runs across Ross (Patrick Wilson, “Aquaman”), Tobin’s dad and someone else who is lost in the grass – although he seems to perhaps know a little more about the situation than he lets on.

Meanwhile, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson, “Upgrade”) – Becky’s ex-boyfriend and father to her unborn child – is attempting to track her down. He winds up finding the field and making his way in as well, getting just as unstuck from the world as everyone else. It’s when he turns up, however, that everyone starts to discover just HOW unstuck that is – and starts to question how (or if) they will ever find their way back.

“In the Tall Grass” has a few issues, the biggest being the tangled nature of the plot. While the malleability of time and space are crucial to the story, the internal logic of the device seems inconsistent. There are a few too many dangling threads that are either waved away or simply ignored. Stuff like this can stumble if there are no discernable rules; even the inexplicable should maintain that inside-out plausibility. It’s not a huge problem, but a noticeable one.

Of course, that’s offset by the wonderful atmosphere that Natali creates. He turns the grass itself into a character, one that lives and breathes and whispers. You wouldn’t think there was much that was creepy about a field of wind-waving grass, but as it turns out, there’s a whole lot there. The visual choices are strong, but it’s the audio that really sells it – the rustling that turns into almost-intelligible words, the squishing and squelching of farm mud underfoot, the rapid near-far oscillation of character conversation … it’s all great.

The performances range a bit. De Oliveira does pretty well with what she’s given; not everyone can endow this sort of role with any emotional heft. She does the standard screaming/crying horror heroine bit, but there’s a little more depth than the usual fare. Wilson is really going for it; you get the impression that he genuinely loves this genre stuff and can’t get enough of it. He gives a nicely weird, off-kilter performance. On the other hand, Whitted can’t really keep up; his performance makes one wonder if he was cast solely for the resemblance to his co-star. And Gilbertson seems a bit at sea, as if he isn’t really sure what he’s supposed to be doing. There are moments that work, but there are others that very much do not.

“In the Tall Grass” isn’t going to enter the horror pantheon. However, it is a competently-executed movie with a well-rendered aesthetic and atmosphere; there are a couple of solid scares and a handful of squishily gory bits that are good fun. If you’re a horror fan, you probably won’t regret spending 100 minutes on this one. If you’re not, you might be better off using that time to mow the lawn.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 October 2019 10:29

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