Crawl (19, B+)

I watched Crawl in the middle of the worst thunderstorm I’ve witnessed since moving to Chicago, which feels like a solid backdrop to watch a movie about a daughter and father fight off alligators during a hurricane. At a tight 87 minutes, the sheer focus of Crawl’s narrative and the amount of scares it’s able to wring from this scenario is impressive on its own but also feels like a pointed, refreshing rebuke to the 2019 horror films I managed to see before this. It, Chapter Two has some worthwhile performances but also an inexcusable runtime and a huge downgrade of its predecessor’s thematic and technical merits, while Child’s Play offered literally no alibi for its own existence except to lead folks towards the unimprovable ‘88 original. Maybe I’ll like Midsommar better on rewatch, but for now I’m impressed by some parts of its risky execution and very, very bored by the rest of it. All of this to say Crawl is entertaining as hell, a triumph in its own right but also as an antidote to so many disappointing, bloated films that have been inflicted upon us this summer.

The opening does an economical job of introducing us to Haley (Kaya Scodelario, as watchful as Allison Williams but in a restless, more emotionally transparent key), warming up in line during a swim team relay even as the women around her are relaxed, even talking to each other after finishing their (round?). She’s determined, working so hard to prove herself you wonder if she’s getting in her own way a bit, and visibly isolated from her teammates even in a group activity. We learn later this desperation is partly because she’s in danger of being cut from the team, – though in danger of being cut from a renowned college swim team in Florida still mean she’s fuckin’ good – along with ongoing issues with her family life, shown via some flashback images and a brusque phone call with her sister after practice. Haley takes it upon herself to drive two hours in the face of an imminent hurricane to visit their suddenly off-the-grid father Dave (Barry Pepper), and Crawl is able to spin her conflicted relationship with her dad into a totally compelling arc before we see a single gator. I kept comparing the first 20 minutes of this film to the first hour of The Descent, where the psychological strain of people trapped in a natural disaster was so exactly realized that it’s scary enough without anyone trying to eat them.

Both films are helped by taut construction as much as defty set-up personal turmoils, though the rifts troubling Haley and her dad are a little less traumatizing. Crawl is able to manufacture a real-ass, terrifying hurricane, incrementally raising the already forceful volume of the rain and wind as Haley gets closer to her father. Editing makes sure we’re moving at a muscular clip without simply breezing through the story, making sure the buildup to finally finding Dad is worth following on its own. The prospect of having to outrun a hurricane with her dad or be barricaded in his house is already a suspenseful race against time for Haley, and the film adopts this temperament right up until the moment an alligator spoils her attempt at getting her severely wounded father up the wooden basement stairs by smashing them to smithereens, Kool-Aid-Man style. Now she’s trapped with a hungry lizard, a wounded Dad, and no obvious route of escape. Soon she’s wounded herself, not bad enough to stop her but enough to slow her down. The editing rhythms take on new cadences here, becoming slightly more paranoid as Haley and Dave keep watch for enemies, spiking appropriately during action scenes and even allowing a few opportunities to show us the lurking POVs of the gator. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography becomes a real asset from here out too, artfully separating the grays and greens of the basement to be a totally legible environment while knowing when to foreground the gators and when to blend them into the background. We’re on watch as much as Haley and Dave, frankly more so, since they at least know the layout of this place.

All this setup takes place in barely over twenty minutes, and if I seem overeager to describe just how much attention Crawl pays to its setup before we even hit the plot, it’s only to emphasize how well it’s able to maintain this level of technical achievement, character intrigue, and genuine terror. The navigation between moments of action, character beats, and escape plotting is deftly handled, to include scenes where we leave the house entirely to focus on some poor saps raiding a gas station. Even the ever-growing number of gators is incorporated without the film itself jumping the shark, with Haley and her dad simply compartmentalizing them as a threat to be dealt with once they escape the basement. It sure helps that the gators themselves feel fully rendered, carrying more sheer, meaty weight onscreen than any animal in The Lion King, as big and threatening as they come without seeming like larger-than-life monstrosities. Occasionally they’re almost too cleanly rendered to feel like they’re really in this shitty, damp basement, but you believe their presence and their danger whenever they crash into the frame. I only even registered any quibbles with their appearance when they were slinking around a room rather than when they were about to chow down on Barry Pepper, so it’s fair to say that in the moment the effects are pretty convincing.

I don’t mean to say that every choice is as exciting or thought-out as it might be. An especially bad act of decision-making early on, as Haley attempts to recover her phone, is pretty tough to accept on its face given everything we know about her survivalist determination. And as unexpected as it is that the director of Piranha 3D is so willing to not soak his scenes of characters getting mauled to death in so much blood and viscera, it’s a little surprising Haley and Dave’s wounds never seem more impeding, or at least that they aren’t more upsetting to look at. Still, this restraint also signals a sense of confidence in Alexandre Aja’s direction, that this scenario doesn’t need the grotesqueries of Piranha 3D to be tense and scary. Likewise, it’s kind of amazing there’s not a single moment where the film tries to wheedle any sense of suspense by pretending the family’s dog Sugar is in danger of getting eaten. Even the one scene that ostensibly suggests this is really to indicate that the dog is likely attracting a gator rather than acting like one is right behind it. It’s human vs gator ‘round these parts, with dog acting as a spectator and companion more than an active participant.

Perhaps, bringing up comparison to The Descent again, Crawl is never quite as brutal as it could be, in either conception or execution. But it’s also tight as hell, genuinely entertaining, and compelling as hell without reaching for too many false dramatics. Also unlike The Descent, it also boasts a captivating star turn in Kaya Scodelario’s performance, who manages to be as psychologically interesting and physically capable as Crawl needs her to be while bringing her own charisma to the role. At its best, it’s able to stretch the sheer terror of Brad Pitt on that biological research ship in Ad Astra into longer, equally terrifying set pieces. It’s a breath of fresh air in a very dreary summer and a satisfying watch on its own terms. Maybe it’s too late to see it in a theater, but it’s worth waiting til the next time a thunderstorm hits.

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