A film review by Craig J. Koban August 5, 2019

CRAWL jjj
 

2019, R, 87 mins.

 

Kaya Scodelario as Haley Keller  /  Barry Pepper as Dave Keller  /  Ross Anderson as Wayne Taylor  /  George Somner as Marv  /  Ami Metcalf as Lee  /  Josť Palma as Pete

Directed by Alexandre Aja  /  Written by Shawn and Michael Rasmussen

 

 

 

CRAWL is two movies for the price of one.

It's a monster horror flick about a real life aquatic creature wreaking havoc on a deeply vulnerable family and it's also an outdoor survival drama concerning a dangerous force of Mother Nature baring down on the same said family.  

There's not much here that really reinvents the genre wheel, and the Alexandre Aja (PIRANHA 3D) directed and Sam Raimi/Blumhouse produced effort plays into the playbook of those aforementioned types of films without straying too much away from them.  But CRAWL is also refreshingly economic in terms of its approach and premise and emerges as an absolutely merciless thriller.   

It's also one of the wettest films I've ever seen, and one where you leave the cinema after having watched it appreciating the sheer logistical technical craft that went into while simultaneously feeling horrible for the actors, the few of which must have gone through what appears to be a physically arduous shoot. 

The hook of CRAWL could not be an more efficiently simple: An estranged father and daughter are brought fatefully together as a lethal hurricane comes crashing in, forcing them to become trapped in their family home's crawl space (hence, the title here) as man hungry alligators swarm in and want to make them a tasty meal.  That's essentially it.  The strength, though, of CRAWL is that it doesn't waste much running time on particulars (at a scant 87 minutes, the film is a pitch perfect length) and finds novel ways of executing a very straightforward story.  The fact that it also manages to have some time for commenting on the ethereal bond between family members when placed in states of anxiety plagued crisis is noteworthy, on top of also rightfully showing the nightmarish extremes of how weather can turn on a dime and threaten countless lives.  It would have been deceptively easy for a film like this to lose track of its human interest angle (far too many horror thrillers use their characters like targeted props being served up for the kill), but CRAWL is smarter than that.  It allows the characters presented within to have some atypical weight as far as this genre goes, which makes their predicament all the more relatable and frightening. 

 

 

Now, having said all of that, comparisons of this film to other similar efforts like JAWS and even the more recently released THE SHALLOWS proves inevitable, but I think the juxtapositions between CRAWL and the 2016 Blake Lively creature feature are more apt, seeing as both are about strong and empowered women in a grueling fights for their respective lives against gators and sharks respectively.  CRAWL opens in a southwest Florida town that's about to have a gigantic Category 5 hurricane swoop in to potentially destroy a lot in its path.  The extremely game Haley (Kaya Scodelario of THE MAZE RUNNER trilogy) returns home in search of her father, Dave (the equally game Barry Pepper), who has not been responding to her texts and phones calls.  Fearing what has happened to her father on top of the storm that's about to unleash hell on earth, Haley decides to journey home to find out his whereabouts.  It should be noted that (a) they haven't been on tight terms for years after an emotionally burdensome divorce between Haley's parents and (b) Dave used to be his daughter's competitive swimming instructor who once had high hopes for her future athletic excellence (this ultra convenient plot point will obviously come in predictably handy later). 

Upon returning home she discovers, to her dismay, that her horribly injured father has been stuck in the dwelling's crawl space, which prompts her to spring into immediate action to pull him out of them and get him out of the harm's way of the storm waters to come (a sweeping and compulsory evacuation order for the area has been implemented for local authorities).  Tragically, she learns that two gators have been camping out in the ever increasingly flooded crawl space, one of which chomped down on Dave's shoulder and leg, making even the slightest movement's for him impossibly painful.  Haley then realizes that's she's between a proverbial rock and a hard place in trying to keep both herself and her dad alive while trying to figure out a way to escape the crawl space without drowning or being eaten alive. 

Again, I admire the dramatic weight given to the two main characters, which helps to elevate CRAWL above murky B-grade waters (no pun intended).  There's ample tension between Haley and her father, which mostly stems from the fact that she believes that he spent far too much time trying to convert her to an "apex predator" athlete instead of focusing on his marriage and keeping his family together.  CRAWL may be a short film, but it demonstrates some patience early on in the expository scripting department in terms of establishing the particulars of its characters and the emotional gulf that exists between them.  In many respects, the film is not only about physical survival against brutally uncompromising elements, but also one about personal salvation and having people reconcile their mutual hurts feelings in order to band together and, well, live.  Of course, CRAWL has it schlockier elements, to be sure, but it does show some care and attention to its personas that populate this nutty film. 

Aja also makes a staggeringly good looking film on an extremely meager $14 million budget.  Using a combination of CGI and meticulous sleight of hand puppetry, Aja and his VFX and production design wizards craft these reptilian predators with surprising and thankless authenticity.  Beyond that, Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre also execute scene after scene that realistically evokes the alarming ferocity of the hurricane contained within (the storm is both visually disturbing and beautiful at the same time).  Aja is smart in working within his tight financial restraints, opting to focus solely on the environment of the family home, its basement, and the surrounding neighborhood lurking outside.  The sense of chilling claustrophobia is always palpable throughout CRAWL, with Haley and her farther struggling to face off against their beastly stalkers as well as the environmental impediments (like obtrusive piping, exposed wire, and completely restricted access to exit points) while trying not to drown with the water levels rising by the minute.  Those that are aquaphobic will not make it through this film. 

CRAWL also benefits from the deeply committed performances by Pepper and Scodelario, the latter of which is given the lion's share of hair raising sequences that most likely required her to put her mind, body, soul, and sanity on the line (I'm quite positive that this was the most unnervingly punishing shoot of her young career).  The film is not water tight (again, no pun intended): I think there are times when obligatory jump scares are used too aggressively when the whole dread inducing atmosphere of the piece is infinitely more scary.  Also, it can easily be said that Haley's established swimming prowess is pretty contrived in retrospect, which leads to some laughably incredulous moments in the narrative where she's munched on multiple times by those ravenous gators and miraculously and laughably never loses any body parts.  And, uh huh, CRAWL is certainly made from the spare parts of countless other survival horror films.  

Yet, Aja's film is commendably and editorially tight and is made with a consummate slickness that makes it look like it cost twenty times more than it did.  Plus, it transcends it preposterous plot elements by being legitimately and engagingly suspenseful and never overstays its welcome like other bloated summer film season offerings.  

You may have to dry off after watching it.  

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