Film Review: ‘Crawl’
So many times in a monster/animal attack movie there are tropes that must be followed. These include: the main protagonist escaping all harm (even if it’s a really close call each time), a fake-out death scene where you KNOW they’re not dead, jump scares to make up for the fact that the writing/directing/acting is abysmal, the marking of a rival creature to set the stage for a final confrontation at the climax of the film, and a super happy ending that leaves no doubt about the fate of the characters we’ve been following for the entire movie.
It’s formulaic and predictable and in order to compensate for these inevitabilities, we must fully immerse ourselves in the suspension of disbelief as we watch our “heroes” make stupid decisions time and time again simply to drive the plot forward. If this is the type of stuff you enjoy and expect from a summer blockbuster, then Crawl is NOT for you.
The main protagonists are Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper). The premise of Crawl, as stated on the IMDb page is: “A young woman, while attempting to save her father during a Category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.” This is an oversimplification of the plot; it’s actually much more complex. Dave is going through a divorce (the details of which are revealed in the film) and the family home is currently for sale while he lives in a condo.
Since no one has been living in the home, it has fallen into disrepair, and the grate on the overflow pipe that allows for a flooded basement to drain into the swamp became damaged and alligators began nesting in the damp, rat-infested basement. Dave went there to do some repair work and was attacked and lost consciousness, setting into motion a series of events and ripple effects that would touch numerous lives.
Due to the ferocity of the storm, the entire area was being evacuated. Haley’s sister, Beth, called her after her swim meet for Florida University because Beth lives in Boston. Haley is only a couple of hours away. Beth wondered if Haley had heard anything from him, and of course, she hadn’t. So, she went to check on him, despite the evacuation order. What follows is an intense series of events that will leave you breathless, excited, scared and reminding yourself that while completely plausible…it’s just a movie.
The characters are not cookie-cutter horror film protagonists. This is something that I need to mention straight away. Haley is a smart, strong and resourceful woman that was once rarely seen in films like this, but characters like her are finally on the rise. The Rasmussen brothers, Michael and Shawn, did a great job of creating a character who refuses to resign herself to the fate that is presented to her on a number of occasions, rising to each and every challenge with which she is faced.
She adapts and improvises using her environment and the objects around her. This trend seems to be on the upswing, which is a welcoming breath of fresh air, to be honest. I think audiences, for the most part, are willing to embrace strong female characters over the classic “damsel in distress and in need of rescue” characters we are so used to seeing in these types of films. Kaya Scodelario does a phenomenal job bringing Haley to life, making us care about her and even holding our collective breath along with her in the tense and terrifying underwater scenes.
Barry Pepper’s Dave certainly brings gravitas to the film, giving Haley something to fight for, aside from her own survival. He motivates her, coaches her and does what he can to help her while simultaneously leaning on her in order to survive. He needs her; without her intervention, he would have died when the storm came and no one would have ever learned his fate. He’s badly injured, with a vicious shoulder wound and a compound fracture of his leg. The scene where he attends to this wound with the only supplies available to him is masterfully done by the special effects team. In this case, the audio is just as important as the visuals.
The raw, visceral feelings you experience is a hallmark of Alexandre Aja’s directing skill. The difference between this scene and one of the scenes in his previous films like High Tension (2003, also called Haute Tension) and his 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes is that this isn’t an over-the-top scene of gratuitous gore; this was just a regular person attempting to better their odds of survival by doing whatever they could to treat a grievous injury without the benefit of advanced medical assistance. We see more great gore effects throughout the film as well, but I’ll let you experience those without a hint or preview of what’s coming. It’s better that way, trust me.
The vast majority of the film takes place in and around Dave and Haley’s home. Their familiarity with it gives them an advantage, sort of leveling the playing field against the apex predators with whom they now find themselves in direct conflict. The film’s tagline “They were here first” works on a couple of different levels. First, the obvious meaning that alligators have been around relatively unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Second, the meaning I mentioned before about how they had been nesting in the area between the basement and the overflow pipe.
We see this nest at one point in the movie and it is briefly shown in the trailer when Haley finds the eggs. This is a concept that I truly enjoy in films like this and it seems to be ignored by a lot of moviegoers; these animals are NOT inherently evil. All they are doing is what nature has programmed into their very DNA for literally millions of years.
The reason that big, scary animals tend to be the antagonists in films is because of our inherent fear of them and the fact that they cannot be reasoned or negotiated with, and on a physical level we don’t stand a chance against them. We’re powerless to stop them from what they want to do. We’ve seen it in countless films where alligators, crocodiles, bears, sharks and more are the villains in the narrative. They’re not. To put this into perspective, since 1990 (according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles) there have been 2,272 bicycle-related deaths in Florida and FOUR shark attack deaths. From 1999-2007 there were 17 combined shark and alligator deaths according to an analysis of CDC statistics. This is compared to 655 deaths caused by cows, horses, and other mammals.
It seems that the Rasmussens and Aja were keenly aware of this fact, as well as alligator hunting methods. It’s almost as if certain parts of the film served as a public service announcement for avoiding attacks by these awesome predators. I love a film that can educate, as well as terrify. I love supporting good horror films with my dollars because the more we as fans in the horror community support strong films that we enjoy, the more of these films we will get to experience.
Final take on Crawl
Overall, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The pacing, the action, the acting, the writing, and the use of the various sets are all top-notch. I love the way this film ended because it is not cut and dried; there’s some ambiguity. There’s no guarantee for anyone. Things seem to be looking up and positive, but it’s a tenuous grip that could fail at any moment. I also really liked how there were not really any lazy jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few, but there’s no indication that they’re about to happen as you see in so many films.
I also enjoyed the score and how it did what a good score should do – punctuate moments of stress or intensity (good or bad). This film vaulted into my top five films for 2019. It’s a movie that I had been anticipating for months and my expectations were sky-high. When you team up the producer, writers, director, and actors this film offers, you expect a fantastic end result. This is what I was expecting, this is what I wanted. What I got exceeded that. There’s really only one last thing to be said.
Go see this movie. Crawl is in theaters now.
Patrick Rahall covers entertainment for MFST. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickrahall.