Crawl is a brand-new summer thriller from director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), hailing from the production company of former Spider-Man director Sam Raimi. It stars Kaya Scodelario as Haley, a young woman with remarkable swimming skills and some family strife who is one of many told to evacuate the south of Florida due to the impending strike of an ultra-powerful Category 5 hurricane. But when Haley’s father (Barry Pepper) fails to contact either her or her sister to let them know of his whereabouts, Haley figures he stayed behind in order to fix up some things at home prior to the evacuation, and embarks on a rescue mission of sorts in order to find him, later discovering that he’s been mauled by alligators that came in through the hurricane drain pipe. With hardly more than an hour to spare, and the storm getting worse by the second, Haley must save both her father and herself from the monstrous beasts around them before the hurricane waters flowing in from the coast can flood the crawl space, killing them both before the alligators get the chance.
Look, you know exactly what you’re getting with this movie. The simple fact of the matter is if you saw the trailer even once, you more than likely know in a looser sense how the film ends and whether or not the protagonists survive the perils they’re put through, at least in Haley’s case as the leading character, so this review won’t even try to play up the mystery of whether or not that happens or doesn’t (still staying spoiler-free), largely because that is the least consequential part of the narrative at large and ultimately, the journey getting there is what matters more anyway. Crawl is a movie about surviving a flooding house for an hour and a half while surrounded by alligators and needing to either kill or outsmart them in order to survive the amount of time you have long enough to get free of those floodwaters. That’s it. That’s the whole movie. It would be nonsensical to try and approach this review as anything like a philosophical reflection on the human spirit for survival or something like that, because the movie doesn’t try to make itself anything more than a simple thriller, and in that regard, it fares mostly pretty well.
This movie is tense almost from minute one. Like I said, it’s a deliberately simple tension, but a tension nonetheless that works for the premise on which it rests. This isn’t to say that it’s literally non-stop tension from the word go, but even while all the characters stuff is getting set up, and the first act is starting to reach the beginning of its end, there are a number of scenes before the alligators even show up that focus more on the peril faced by the protagonist driving headline into hurricane floodwaters, and they paint a pretty dire picture of the challenges poised to Haley as she attempts to rescue her dad. The atmosphere set up by forcing a hurricane into the picture allows for some really solid bomb-under-the-table, ticking time-clock stuff that adds an extra challenge to the already difficult circumstances our protagonists face, and the intensity of the storm is seat-gripping material. More than once in the film, I found myself asking how our main characters were going to get out of this one every time a new situation presented itself, and while most of that had to do with the alligator threat in the crawl space they’re trapped in, that curiosity was also partially driven by the notion of having to survive a Category 5 with very little to no help at all from the outside, as emergency services for the area would have to be suspended because of that natural roadblock.
When Haley finds her Dad, though, that’s when the movie really gets going and steps up to deliver some genuine mile-a-minute thrills that don’t seem to ever slow down due to the nature of the space the characters are trapped in, and director Alexandre Aja uses that small space to its greatest effect, with tight camera angles and solid sound design to make us feel like there’s only so much Haley or her Dad can do to survive before they have no choice but to get upstairs or the floodwaters will kill them anyway. The crawl space where most of the movie takes place isn’t just a flooded basement, but one that is an actual crawl space, where one can’t move around without swimming and the space to swim is mostly slim to none. The alligators that circle our main characters are also quite terrifying in their power and ferocity, more than once managing to land a hit on Haley or her dad that any normal person (aka someone not filming a movie) would lose their hope to survive in receiving; bloody, gory, bones popping out, flesh ripped away, limbs shewn off – it’s all there in as much as alligator wounds can believably harm without fatalities happening, and the effects work can at times yield disgustingly impressive results. But of course, none of it would matter if we didn’t care about these characters at all or cared about them less as the film went on, which means for this movie to work, it has to have performances that can carry it. Luckily, it does.
Scodelario is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her back, and in fact she carries so much of it, I’m surprised her back wasn’t broken after filming. To say nothing of Barry Pepper’s performance would be disingenuous since he does turn in a pretty good performance and makes a sympathetic character out Haley’s dad, even with mostly having nothing to do, but it is a supporting performance all the same, and Scodelario is the real power behind the film’s central narrative, so she gets a lot more screen-time and a lot more to do than he does. She’s turning into quite the performer, one that’s managed to be one of the only good parts of the last Pirates of the Caribbean, and the best part of this entry into her filmography (at least out of the two main human characters), so I’d say she’s doing pretty well for herself, and I look forward to seeing more of her performances in more prominent material after this confidently astute turn from her. There are a few cheesy lines she has to deliver to essentially thankless results, but they’re few and far between considering how much good she actually has to do and how well she performs despite being soaked in freezing cold water for a majority of the run-time.
However, despite all this good stuff, the movie does lack in some areas as well – not detrimental ones, but it lacks all the same. Although it’s not a surprise given the elements of the movie Aja chooses to focus in on the most (i.e. the “thrills” aspect of a thriller), the movie does falter when it chooses to shift that focus towards the elements more having to do with the character development of our main protagonists. To be fair, there’s more of it than normal in other movies like this, and none of it is hampered by bad writing or poor decision-making necessarily, but once or twice it feels like the film is either jogging in place or pausing to take a quick breath in what’s otherwise a pretty taut 88 minutes, which would be fine apart from the fact that thrillers oft suffer from breath-taking the most due to not having spent enough time with the characters for that to matter. What’s there is generally pretty good, but it’s so brushed over in favor of getting back to the thrills we came for that it might’ve been better left out apart from the opening set-up portion. The movie doesn’t take the time to explore the character development or deeper connections it hints at, and while that’s somewhat a shame, it’s easy to see why more time wasn’t spent on that aspect of the film despite its inclusion in the narrative.
In the end, Crawl is simple, occasionally overly so, but this makes for a more engaging narrative that doesn’t have to bide its time getting to the good stuff in order to force you to care about things you didn’t come to the theater to see. This works as a detriment to the overall product in some cases like character development, but the thrills this thriller promised in its marketing really are there, and the end result is something somewhat akin to Lights Out, another small budget thriller from a few years ago that, like Crawl, wasn’t going to win any awards, but managed to be an engaging ride all the same because that’s all it needed to be. Whether or not you’ll like the movie is ultimately up to how you respond to thrillers like it on a personal level, but if you are the type of person who likes simple, small-budget, single-location thrillers, you can’t deny that this movie delivers exactly what it said it would.
I’m giving “Crawl” a 7.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.