The latest in a string of recent good-but-not-great Stephen King adaptations to hit Netflix, “In the Tall Grass” stands out for its disorienting visuals and a zany performance from horror veteran Patrick Wilson (“Insidious,” “The Conjuring”).
Based on Stephen King and his son Joe Hill’s novella of the same name, Vincenzo Natali’s (“Cube,” “Splice”) adaption keeps the same story but adds a few minor tweaks.
Released Oct. 4, the film follows siblings Cal (Avery Whitted) and six-months-pregnant Becky Demuth (Laysla De Oliveira). The siblings are driving across the country to give Becky’s unborn daughter up for adoption.
When Cal pulls over so Becky can throw up, his nauseous sister hears a young boy (Will Buie Jr.) screaming for help from the field of tall grass on the side of the road. The pair enter the field to save the boy, but they’re quickly separated.
Natali crafts a more ambiguous timeline than the novella for his film’s plot, amplifying the disorienting effects of trying to navigate the field. After an inscrutable amount of time searching for Cal, Becky runs into Ross (Patrick Wilson), father of Tobin, the young boy she and Cal came to help.
Ross claims he found a way out of the grass but returned to save Tobin and his wife, Natalie (Rachel Wilson). Ross offers to help Becky find Cal and lead the whole group back to the road. Becky agrees, and the two begin searching for their families.
As the search lengthens and it becomes clear Ross’s plan is too good to be true, the reason Wilson was cast becomes apparent. Whitted and Oliveira are underwhelming but serviceable in their leading roles, while Wilson’s performance gives the film an identity.
Wilson’s recurring role as paranormal investigator Ed Warren in the “Conjuring” series established his persona as a loving dad, but Natali shows little interest in giving him a stereotypical role. Here, Wilson’s impressive range allows “In the Tall Grass” to have some fun subverting his preconceived archetype.
Something sinister and possibly supernatural hides under the guise of a boisterous family man. As Ross’s motivations come into focus, Wilson’s boisterous, friendly exterior peels off, revealing the vile truth at his core.
Wilson leans into the melodramatic take on his typical character, taking his normal role and twisting into a disturbing caricature.
Wilson’s performance is the center of the film, but Natali’s distinct visual style keeps the film’s monolithic field of tall grass from growing monotonous. The bloody red dream sequences and the muddy russet twinge of the field’s soil complement the deep green of the grass field.
Natali’s chaotic visual and narrative styles pervade the film, making it a distressing watch, but they come at the expense of clarity. The plot is only discernible retrospectively, and multiple story threads are lost in the haze of dream sequences and unspecific passages of time. Wilson’s manic turn and Natali’s commitment to visual flair are the only factors mitigating the film’s narrative lapses.
Despite succeeding more on a technical level than it does narratively, “In the Tall Grass” remains a worthy addition to the Stephen King-adaptation-onslaught of the 2010s.
“In the Tall Grass,” rated TV-MA, is now streaming on Netflix.