‘In the Tall Grass’ Bends and Twists and Horrifies

With summer slowly winding down, and autumn swift approaching, I find myself drawn to films that hearken to the season of fear. The skies are darker, now. The wind blows harder. The pumpkins come in, with their notorious spices. It’s time to celebrate the monsters and the nightmares and the wicked dreams. It is time to get lost in the tall grass, where the way is uncertain and no one is safe. I did not know, when I selected this film, that it was based on a novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. I was expecting a stylish, lo-fi number, and it was surprisingly more sophisticated than I expected, with some genuinely creepy visual effects. Oddly enough, the weakest part of the film was certain written notes that felt forced. The messianic, salesman father never quite felt like anything but a pastiche of empty American fatherhood. The conflict between Travis, the deadbeat father of an unborn child trying to redeem himself, and Cal, the brother of said mother feels forced in the context of the film, and the betrayal of one of them feels unearned.

I am getting ahead of things. A young woman in her sixth month of pregnancy is riding in a car with her brother across the vast grassy plain of Kansas. They pull over so she can throw up. They are in front of a dilapidated church with abandoned cars out in front of it. They hear voices in the long grass, shouting for help. They wander in, hesitatingly, and get quickly lost from each other and the road and everything else in this ordered world where things make sense. Soon, it is clear they will never escape the grass or find each other. When Cal is found by Tobin, the very child he had been attempting to save from the grass, something is clearly not right. The boy is covered in mud, and carrying a dead bird. He places the animal like a marker, and leads Cal on a journey through the grass to what will supposedly answer all his questions. I should stop here, really. There are plenty of mysteries to unravel, and revealing them all, now, would ruin what is best about the little, uneven film. The construct of the terror, and its slowly revealed machinations are the best part of the film, with the rise to a horrifying climax with powerful, nightmarish imagery, as the grass comes alive and the roots of the field are revealed.

Nothing is certain in this garden of forking paths. The messiah that claims to be ready to save them is, of course, a monster but this is so proudly painted it cannot be misunderstood a moment. The nature of the monstrous entity or presence is never fully revealed, merely alluded to, and in this it finds great power. The imagery of the grass bowing and waving and twisting around, and the thick, slurping mud underfoot, and all the tiny insects unaware that they, too, are trapped in the maze create an interesting and visually stimulating horror that is, like all the best pieces of that genre, so close to home. Step off a road into a field of grass, and never, ever escape. Time twists and bends as the grass moves the people around in loops that they struggle to escape. Most do not. Travis’ arrival, months after his expectant girlfriend and her brother went missing is reminiscent, at first, of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” where the vignette of the beginning suddenly changes focus to a new character seemingly in the footsteps of the one we just watched die. The camera shows two bits of dew in the morning grass, one falling into another larger one, before dropping down onto Travis’ eye. But, time doesn’t work like that and the will of the mysterious entity – its hunger – is too great to permit such a simplistic narrative.

It’s a fine start to the season of horror, despite its rough patches. Here, at summer’s end, the grass is high, and the sun still bakes the ground, and it would be such a simple thing to wander off into a field.



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