Thursday, 5 December 2019

In The Tall Grass (2019) - Movie Review

Write a story about two people in a room. For the entirety of that story, these two never leave that room. There is nothing in it except for themselves. There is nothing that they can do except interact, either through basic conversation or something more… physical. There might be flashbacks to their lives before entering that room, but otherwise, this is where the story takes place. This one room with just two people in it.

Sounds boring, right? Well, it’s one of the more classic tests of great filmmaking: Take that conceit and make it interesting. And writer/director Vincenzo Natali, when he isn’t making genre flicks about bioengineered rape shenanigans (seriously, Splice is a weird movie), has made a career out of pushing that idea to its breaking point. From the theological twists of Cube to the existential dramedy Nothing, whose most memorable scenes show two people in a void of bright white nothingness, he knows how to do a lot with very little scenery. If there was any Stephen King story he'd choose to adapt, of course it’d be this one.

The story of a group of people who find themselves in an overgrown patch of tall grass, struggling to find their way out, ends up struggling itself at first based purely on that singular-set framework. While horror based on how confronting the natural world is can get a lot of mileage out of the seeming normality of nature, the setting doesn’t end up being as terrifying as it should be. If anything, with how the narrative plays with spatial and even temporal distortion to emphasise how easy it is to lose track of reality itself when you find yourself lost with no way out, it feels like it overwhelms one’s energy rather than one’s nerve.

This is where the acting ends up bulking up the tension and dread of the premise. Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted as a sister and brother duo who initially get stuck in the thick of the thicket work nicely, even with how intentionally and unintentionally incestuous the text can get at times, Will Buie Jr. as the child Tobin gives the film some very intensive bookends, Harrison Gilbertson as the father of the sister’s child works alright with the admitted little he gets, and Patrick Wilson… is all kinds of fun. He’s basically the one who succumbs to the weird shit happening, and as he grows more and more unhinged, he ends up crystalizing some of the script’s chewier ideas. I should mention that all of these actors have to work against the bursts of character exposition they’re given, so it’s surprising that they are as natural as they are here.

What the story boils down to, as far as my understanding at least, is derived from Stephen King’s usual ruminations on religious faith, extremism of that faith, and even a bit of the omniscience that is regularly ascribed to the Almighty. The way that time as a concept gets flayed bare within the story means that, as we get further into the running time, we see that everyone involved has been in the grass before. And will be again. And might very well be there alongside themselves somewhere in the Blair Witch-esque mindfuck that is the grass. Every single decision they make, whether it’s to fight against the forces within the grass or buckle down and join them, has already been witnessed. And the ones chasing our characters have seen every possibility. And they catch them. Every. Single. Time.

It’s definitely one of the creepier takes on contained multiverse theory that I’ve seen in a movie, one bolstered by how it makes one want to cry out “Where the hell am I supposed to go?!”, a question I often associate with the labyrinthine task of following the advice of a greater being who already knows all of your possible outcomes and which one you’ll ultimate arrive at. Free will may have its sticking points, but it involves far less headaches than predeterminism as a general rule. Add to that Wilson’s character, a former gospel musician, and the very green-hued church across the road from the maze of grass, and this feels like it gets what King was going for in terms of theme.

It is definitely a grower, though, as it takes a bit of time to get past the sensation that this is a premise that could only suffice as a short film, something that struck me pretty quickly here. But as the characters keep getting pressured, Wilson keeps getting nuttier, and the details of the plot itself get crackier, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. Hell, once it reaches the ending, it actually got me all tensed up, wanting the leads to survive this mess. If it got me emotionally engaged with the characters, despite my misgivings about the relative monotony of the setting, it must’ve done something right.

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