Directed by: Vincenzo Natali || Produced by: Steve Hoban, Jimmy Miller, M. Riley
Screenplay by: Vincenzo Natali || Starring: Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Will Buie Jr.
Music by: Mark Korven || Cinematography: Craig Wrobleski || Edited by: Michele Conroy || Country: Canada || Language: English
Running Time: 101 minutes
I’ve waited a long time for another science-fiction film in the vein of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997). That sort of film, restricted to a single location where characters must solve a puzzle on which their lives depend, is the sort of inventive yet low-cost production ripe for rookie filmmakers to test their mettle; it is the sort of cinematic premise limited only by one’s creativity in screenwriting, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised why more aspiring writer-directors, even professional ones, don’t try it more often. The closest recent example of which I can think is Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), starring Sam Rockwell working a dead-end (literally!) maintenance job on, well, the moon.
No major production has successfully replicated Cube’s imaginative premise of people trapped in a lethal postmodern labyrinth, however, at least not til this year. Though not a science-fiction tale, In the Tall Grass recaptures Cube’s feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia, and furthermore portrays characters who must solve the film’s eponymous diegetic puzzle in order to survive. Those are all the ingredients I require. Grass is the spiritual successor to Cube, in many ways, trading the monolithic, concrete maze of the latter for an expansive, foreboding sea of haunted tallgrass prairie, a sci-fi premise for supernatural horror, and the results are every bit as satisfying. Like its 1997 predecessor, Grass may frustrate certain audiences expecting substantial exposition and rigid narrative structure, yet barring a few head-scratching moments where the film’s internal logic trips over itself, this diegesis is both cinematic and well defined. The eponymous vegetation boasts enough mythology, creepy visuals, and a concrete antagonist (a great Patrick Wilson) to unsettle most viewers, while also explaining just enough of its premise to maintain narrative steam. That being said, those looking for horror derivative of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013, 2016, 2020), i.e. creepy girls possessed by ghosts or spooky dolls with jump-scare superpowers, understand that In the Tall Grass may require additional patience from you.
Natali’s latest genre film recalls elements from previous films of his besides Cube, including the time-loop plot device featured in Haunter (2013), which mixes well with Grass‘ prairie setting. Together, these diegetic elements of a physical maze and a supernatural temporal loop provide enough excitement for our principle cast (Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Will Buie Jr., Rachel Wilson) without overwhelming the viewer. The basic story progression is as follows: De Olivera and Whitted make a roadside stop during a road trip and are lured into a nearby field of grass by cries of distress from Buie Jr.; bad things happen; much later, Gilbertson tracks their car to the same location and searches for them in the same tallgrass prairie, only to soon hear Buie Jr. and his parents (Patrick and Rachel Wilson, no relation) chase their dog into the prairie from the same roadside stop. See where this is going, yet?
Half the fun of films like Grass and Cube are figuring out their titular puzzles along with the characters, while at the same time enjoying occasional scares and the unsettling ambiance. A story that doles too much exposition will feel predictable, while a diegesis that remains too cryptic will feel frustrating or as if its filmmakers are making things up as they go; Grass, like Cube before it, hits that ideal middle-ground whereby its characters — and by extension, the audience — discover enough about the deadly labyrinth in which they’re trapped to progress the story and understand what threatens them. A horror film whose threat is too vague or ill defined (e.g. most possession or “haunted house” narratives) loses its ability to horrify, and instead confuses. At the same time, Grass retains enough mystery through its satisfactory conclusion, allowing its principle characters to triumph enough without kneecapping the mythological power behind its supernatural antagonists. The film doesn’t over or under-explain its setting, and that is key.
With regards to Natali’s visual storytelling, his choice of location-photography works great for his horror premise, while cinematographer Craig Wrobleski achieves the difficult task of clarifying character geography and movement within monotonous scenery. Lighting setups during both day and night imply most of the outdoor principal photography used natural lighting, and if not that may be even more impressive. Several long-take dollies are extended through hidden cuts between real and computer generated blades of grass, which tightens pacing and helps the viewer follow the time-loop. The film looks great, top to bottom, and its use of otherwise plain settings (e.g. an abandoned church, a rural highway, a big field of grass, etc.) to create a supernatural maze that feels both tangible and threatening is memorable.
As far as faults go, Grass has minor weaknesses regarding a quasi-incestuous love-triangle that adds little to the plot. A few instances of the script losing track of its own time-loop are also amusing, but for the most part, Natali keeps his mind-bending plot-devices under control. Other than that, the movie is a solid project that draws strength from its simplicity. Like a much different film, Antonin Baudry’s submarine-based war thriller, The Wolf’s Call (2019), Grass‘ emphasis on its limited setting excises most of the narrative complexities that bog down other films.
Not too many filmmakers could design one, let alone multiple films around such weird, self-reflexive plot-devices like Vincenzo Natali has done with Cube and In the Tall Grass. I understand many of his films have mixed to poor critical reception, and fewer still have achieved significant box office success with general audiences, but the Canadian writer-director’s attention to detail on paper and behind the camera deserves respect. The longstanding cult status of Cube, alone, warrants viewers giving him the benefit of the doubt, and given the sheer entertainment value of his work, I don’t see these movies turning off most audiences. If you loved Cube as I did, or enjoy dissecting multilayered plots restricted to a single setting in any narrative media, I recommend In the Tall Grass for a bloody good time.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: More fleshed out and less depressing than its source material, Vincenzo Natali’s adaptation of Stephen King and Joe Hill’s novella of the same name references multiple previous works of Natali’s filmmography to great effect. Its characters are straightforward and second fiddle to its charismatic premise — a space and time-shifting field of grass that drives its occupants insane — as it should be. Natali’s direction of camerawork, editing, and choice of location-photography are stellar.
— However… certain character details are more baffling than interesting, while some of the time-travel antics require a suspension of disbelief to immerse oneself in the story.
? Don’t worry, son, it’s only flesh!