In the Tall Grass, premiering on Netflix on October 4, has a clear lesson: When driving through the American heartland, don’t stop to meander through a tall grass field. Not even if you hear the faint cries of someone in need. Not even if you’re a Gryffindor at heart, and can’t pass by a chance to be a hero.
This incredibly bleak movie film punishes people for their best intentions. When Becky (Laysla De Oliveria) and Cal DeMuth (Avery Whitted) enter the field to save a crying boy, they become trapped in a time-bending alternate universe governed by evil grass. And if that doesn’t sound scary, just wait.
In the Tall Grass is adapted from a novella by Stephen King and his son, horror novelist Joe Hill, which originally ran in Esquire in 2012. The film is yet another installation in the King family’s dominion over pop culture. In 2019 alone, three movie adaptations of King’s novels — Pet Sematary, IT: Chapter Two, and Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining — will premiere, as will the second season of Castle Rock, a mash-up of King’s greatest hits. In June, Hill’s vampire novel NOS4A2 was adapted into a series on FX. That’s not counting all the other ones in development.
Best known for mining horror out of quaint Maine towns, King twists another fixture of Americana in this chilling story: The sprawling plains of the Midwest.
Before we get to the movie’s gory climax, complete with tribal music and a baby sacrifice (scream emoji), let’s catch up on the premise.
What is the disorienting premise of In the Tall Grass?
Meet the tall grass’s six latest victims. First, there’s Becky and Cal, siblings driving from Topeka, KE to San Diego, CA to give Becky’s baby, still unborn, up for adoption. Then, there are the Humboldts, who follow their Golden Retriever into the field. Finally, there’s Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), Becky’s estranged boyfriend, who goes searching for her two months after she disappears (and just happens to take the exact same route from Kansas to California).
Like people before them (look at the church’s parking lot, full of abandoned cars), they’re caught in the field’s inescapable time loop. They are doomed to die, wake up, and be killed, over and over again.
According to Ross Humboldt (a crazed Patrick Wilson), the field has a “purpose” for the six of them. But there’s a reason we should doubt everything Ross says: Ross, after touching the rock, has become nothing but a mouthpiece for the tall grass.
What is actually in the Tall Grass?
There is a way out of the field’s loop — but it’s only by submitting to the field. In the center of the field is a gigantic rock, the Uluru of the Stephen King universe. After touching the rock, a person relinquishes her humanity and becomes a murderous, super-powered grass-humanoid (like Tessa Thompson in Annihilation).
Take Ross Humboldt, who touched the rock. Now, he’s a full convert to the field’s theology. Like an emphatic preacher, tries to lead the other five toward the “redemption” the rock offers. He says they’re in the field for a “reason,” they have unfinished business.
When flowery words don’t work, Ross resorts to force. The field encourages Ross’ murderous rampages. Ross is like the field’s resident Thor: When he sticks his hand into the mud, a hammer comes flying from the depths.
The field, as an entity, is dangerous — but Ross carries out its evil. Ross drags Cal to a spot where all of Cal’s past selves were murdered, so it’s like a parade of decaying Cals. Ross’ wife, Natalie (Rachel Wilson, no relation to Patrick), also falls victim. When she tries to warn the others about the rock, Ross crushes her head between his hands, in a move he learned from the Mountain of Game of Thrones.
So that’s the temptation Becky, Travis, and Tobin contend with. Do we keep dying? Or do we start living — as grass humanoids? Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a choice. Everyone else who entered the field before them gave in. Now, their bodies writhe beneath the rock. They can be revived at any given moment as weapons.
How do they break the cycle and escape?
Broadly speaking, In the Tall Grass is about a weird life cycle. Instead of dying and being buried, you die and become...conscious, evil grass. Their organic matter is repurposed. It’s like an eco-friendly zombie movie.
But Becky’s body is also carrying out its own life cycle. She’s pregnant. When some of Becky’s blood drips into the field, a CGI sequence shows the grass soaking up her genes – as if to say, yum, we want more Becky. Eventually, Becky goes into labor. When she wakes up, her baby is gone. Has the baby been eaten? Stolen? Don’t think about it too much.
The loss of his child pushes Travis to finally touch the rock. Travis will be trapped in the field forever, yes — but he’ll also have access to the field’s “knowledge.” Travis uses his newfound omniscience for good. He presses Becky's necklace into Tobin’s hand and somehow transports him out of there. Don’t think about that too much, either, because there are no explanations.
Suddenly, Tobin finds himself in the church by the road. He hears a past version of himself calling to Becky and Cal from inside the field. Tobin convinces the siblings not to enter the field.
For Becky, the fact that this mangy kid somehow her necklace is enough proof thatsorcery is at work, and she should retreat to the familiarity of Kansas. They survive.
The original story has a much bleaker ending.
In the Tall Grass ends relatively well for the DuMuth kids. They never enter the field, and have no PTSD from the horrors their other selves endured. The same can’t be said for Tobin. He emerges from the field a dirty, sweaty orphan, more fit for a Charles Dickens novel than modern society. Becky and Cal plan to drop him off at a police station. But at least he’s alive.
In King and Hill’s novel, Tobin and the others remain trapped in the field, forever luring more kind-hearted people into its disorienting depths. The field’s next victims have already pulled up in an old RV.
“Human kindness, man. I’m all about the human fuckin’ kindness,” one of the characters says before going in to rescue the shouting woman.