Movie review: “Crawl” (2019)

“Banging on the pipes lures their senses. I can distract them for you.”

Though couched as more of a “man versus nature” movie, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is the very definition of horror for me personally, and presents the most comprehensive and compelling case I’ve yet seen on screen for why you should never, under any circumstances, move to Florida, or, outside of a week spent at Disney with the kids, maybe, or exploring Tampa’s aggressively potent bar scene with the grown-ups, stay there. Beyond the blood-sucking insects and will-sapping humidity, beyond all the stupid but reliably hilarious stories that flow out of that state hourly from the pages of clickbait news sites and supermarket tabloids like flood waters overspilling a dike – getting one half of the “human interest” equation right, at least – Florida is best known for two things. Sunshine and sand, you offer? Gators and hurricanes, I’d counter*. Crawl exists at the happy, queasy intersection of those two blights on comfortable modern living, and, as someone with both a longstanding, if personalized, fear of drowning and the, I would think, much more universal fear of being eaten to death by an implacable, toothy lizard, I watched it unfold in wholly fascinated if only occasionally suspended disbelief. These people sure are fighters, right down to the bone marrow now visible in the bitten off stumps that used to house their arms. That, among so many other reasons, is why I couldn’t be in the movies. With me substituted as its plucky protagonist, Crawl would run a lean twenty minutes or so. I’d be thoroughly dead inside of five.

*Just consider the fairly uncommon mascot names of two of the state’s highest profile universities, U of F (Gators) and Miami (Hurricanes), before I rest my case. Now I’m all for the intellectual concept of conquering fears by confronting them head-on, but on a practical level isn’t gifting a moniker like “Hurricanes” to the namesake university of your vulnerable coastal metropolis a little like stepping out into the beginnings of such a storm each day, feeling the wind whipping ‘round and the spray of rain on your face and yelling out, “That all you got, nature?!” Dunno. Maybe I’m weird.

Crawl doesn’t need my creative input or questionable acting chops anyway because, at a streamlined, utterly ripping ninety minutes flat from set-up to kitchen prep to frying pan to fire to dinner plate, it is rarely anything but fine-tuned, beautifully crafted fun of the “sure glad I don’t have to try to live through that” variety. The story, in which a decorated collegiate swimmer defies hurricane warnings to check up on her estranged father, only to be dragged into a life-and-death struggle against the nest of alligators that have used a damaged storm drain to set up housekeeping in the crawl space beneath her childhood home, is essentially the last act of Jaws blown up to feature length and transplanted from the bowels of a sinking ship to the polluted, chin-deep water (or worse) of a rapidly flooding basement. Oh yeah, and there are also multiple sharks in this scenario, so swim safely, kids! As the storm intensifies to Category Five strength outside, eventually shearing off rooftops and first threatening then breaching local levees in an apocalyptic display of applied hydrodynamics, what had at first seemed like a decently weatherproofed suburban basement soon becomes something more akin to Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture escape. Isolated, trapped, and grievously wounded, armed with only the odd screwdriver or road flare, the father and daughter tandem have to take an improvisational series of increasingly unwise chances just to keep their heads above water, figuratively and literally, to say nothing of having them suddenly bitten off. 

If nothing else, Crawl illustrates the wisdom of following official warnings to the letter about when you should evacuate your home in the path of oncoming extreme weather, but that’s also, surprisingly, not the only element at play here. Having happily never experienced a hurricane, I found myself instantly invested in the seemingly workaday story of Haley (capable every-woman Kaya Scodelario), the accomplished junior anchor of the University of Florida’s swim relay team, who leaves a disappointing practice one morning to ominous clouds, isolated squalls of rain, and a worried call from her sister in Boston, who has been unable to reach their father in advance of the impending storm that, without her knowledge, is apparently national news. Haley and her father aren’t talking much lately, or getting along all that well when they do. Her parents’ bitter divorce and the looming sale of her childhood home has taken a psychic toll on the entire family, but especially her as the younger daughter. A loving but demanding general contractor who also served as Haley’s swim coach and professional motivator until she entered college, Dave (Barry Pepper, doing scarily determined, career best work) instilled a stubborn perfectionist streak in his daughter, something she seems to embrace and resent in about equal measure, and something that, transfigured into a fierce preservation instinct, will serve her well during the upcoming trials. The relative calm before this storm is still full of foreboding, as Haley braves darkening skies, limited visibility, and already partially flooded roadways in her SUV but finds nothing at her father’s condo but his dog Sugar (who is a very good girl indeed), and, despite the warnings of most everyone she has yet encountered, fatefully decides to press forward…towards home.  

Far less in vogue/rotation today, “giant animal” movies, in which the dregs of suburbia are accosted where they live by outsized killer vermin or the occasional housepet gone terribly wrong, have marked the periphery of the horror genre for years. They’re generally cheap to make, difficult to sit through, and easy to insult. Crawl, a proud spiritual successor to this tradition despite featuring no strictly unnatural animals of its own – the scaly school kids certainly look plenty damned big to me – is exactly none of those things, and, from the second Haley first realizes she is not alone with her father in their inhospitable basement, settles into a brisk groove of fleeting moments to breathe followed by forced fateful decisions, white knuckle stealth passages from point A to point D, and punctuation by the sort of sudden, up close and personal gator encounters that will get your Florida theme park closed, sued, and liquidated within the space of a week. Wash, rinse, repeat. Aja sprinkles in variety by cruelly venturing outside from time to time, usually to introduce various non-player characters whose sole purpose is to provide flickering hope to audience members unfamiliar with this type of movie before being dramatically snuffed out, but mostly he leans heavily on the claustrophobia and sense of hopelessness that is part and parcel of being cornered between an onrushing watery grave and a pack of bloodthirsty super-predators. The film is also buoyed by keeping a continual eye on the relationship between Haley and Dave, almost as if their fearsome struggle is some radical new form of family counseling. The screenplay is far from perfect, but it’s also far better than it has to be, balancing thrills with character work that may not be entirely subtle but, unlike other B-movies, is also rarely cheap or overbearing.

To that end, the central performances are dialed in and gut level, the effects just south of slick but never a distraction. Scoledario may well have impressed in her recurring role in The Maze Runner series, though I wouldn’t know, but based on her relatability and non-histrionic command here, she has a future as a dependable, above-line horror heroine if she wants it. I have a bad feeling about her house’s realistic chances for resale, though. Aja’s restless camera, which never glides above the fray but, rather, hunkers down and makes itself comfortable in the steadily increasing murk, does a great job of constantly implying amphibious activity where there may not, in fact, be any, or where there might actually be rather more than we expect. He provides effective close quarters action and horror both creeping and immediate throughout, but there is never any doubt which end of the spectrum he favors. Crawl is not all-time amazing horror or anything, but it sets a mighty high bar for the next “alligators hunt humans in a hurricane” movie that comes down the pike. With the gators’ underwater speed, killing acumen, and inherent savagery giving them a significant home-swamp advantage, Crawl envisions the trapped humans almost as if they’d traded places with the doomed dinner lobsters in the foyer tank of a fancy seafood restaurant, and the liberated main course morsels were outside instead, peering in with beady eyes and claws unbound and licking their figurative chops. If that sounds like fun to you, then, brother, will it ever be. And, if not, hey, Disney remade The Lion King with talking, singing photo-realistic CGI animals! I’m sure that’s possibly worth seeing too.

“Crawl” (2019) 3/4 stars

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