Crawl movie review: Brutal alligator allegory is a scary summer surprise
Director - Alexandre Aja
Cast - Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper
Rating - 3/5
A few weeks ago, videos of a couple of Gujarati crocodiles preying on the innocent went viral on social media. Non politically, of course. This is basically the central premise of the allegorical alligator movie, Crawl, which after sneakily succeeding at the US box office has swum its way to our shores.
Disappointingly, though, it isn’t set in Vadodara, but in Florida - a state that is equally well-known for its natural calamities as it is for news headlines about its man-made ones.
Watch the Crawl trailer here
The film’s lean and mean plot could easily inspire one of those popular ‘Florida Man’ headlines, because like most good horror pictures, it begins with an act of blinding stupidity.
Dave Keller, a contractor and overbearing father played by Barry Pepper, decides to board up his home during a Category 5 hurricane, and promptly gets trapped in the underground crawlspace. When his young daughter (Kaya Scodelario), tries and fails to get through to him, she decides that the best course of action is to investigate herself. Ignoring the advise of the authorities, she drives through the torrential rain towards her father’s house. To add another element of dread, she brings her cute little dog along with her.
At the house, she finds her dad, injured and unable to move, trapped in the claustrophobic basement. But just as she’s about to pull him out, a couple of rogue alligators chomp their way through the debris and corner both Dave and his daughter, with just a couple of metal bars between them. But the rain is showing no signs of slowing down; the basement is beginning to flood. And once the water crosses a certain threshold, the gators will be able to swim over the bars and towards poor Dave and his daughter, like hungry diners towards the table they’ve been eyeing for 45 minutes.
As far as horror set-ups go, French filmmaker Alexandre Aja has come up with a rather terrific one. And blessedly, he displays a solid command over his craft, creating a creature-feature that, at an electric 87 minutes long, ends before you’re even able to contemplate its flaws.
There is an efficiency to his filmmaking that I, as a casual fan of his past work, was unprepared for. The most surprising thing about the film wasn’t its relatively streamlined narrative, but the fact that Aja, one of the pioneers of a particularly violent subgenre of horror cinema known as New French Extremity, largely resisted from falling back on his gory roots. And this despite the ready availability of two alligators. Instead, he favours a slow-burn approach, which reveals another layer to his skills.
The geography of the tiny location is easy to understand, which is worth mentioning because so many films overlook this hugely important aspect of survival horror. As an audience, we need to be on the same page as the protagonists. By keeping the viewer in the dark the film risks alienating them; by staying one step ahead it risks coming across as condescending. Crawl just about manages to hit the sweet-spot.
It also helps that the characters - both Dave and Haley - are sympathetic, and easy to root for. And despite a somewhat frequent reliance on cliches - the film is riddled with false hope and false endings - it manages to stay afloat thanks to the committed central performances. As wonderful as it was to see Barry Pepper after what seems like years, Kaya Scodelario, for the first time since her breakout role in the UK show Skins, justifies the expectations that we all had from her. She’s required to do most of the heavy lifting - sometimes quite literally - and delivers the finest performance of its kind since perhaps Blake Lively in The Shallows. It is made all the more impressive because for the most part, she is alone on screen.
The alligators, you see, were almost entirely computer-generated, so as to allow Aja a freedom to craft the tense stand-offs in post-production. But despite their ominous, and near-constant presence, the film’s biggest villain hides in plain sight. The rising water level in the crawlspace brought with it a rather unnerving realisation: Climate change is not only real, but also inevitable.
Through resourcefulness and mental fortitude Dave and Haley could contend with the alligators, but no skill in the world could help them stop the slow and steady barrage of water that they, and everything around them, was being overwhelmed by. Chew on that.