By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen
When the first scene of CRAWL introduces its heroine Haley (Kaya Scodelario) as a competitive swimmer, it tells us everything we need to know about how her character is going to be impacted by the horrific circumstances she’ll soon find herself in. CRAWL is like that in general; it’s a lean-and-mean, no-frills studio B-picture that’s well-crafted enough to deliver the scary goods and devotes just enough time to its characters to make us care.
Haley, we soon learn, is estranged from her father David, who used to be her coach. Yet she’s still concerned enough about him that when a Category 5 hurricane bears down on his Florida neighborhood, she takes it upon herself to drive through the wind and rain to make sure he’s OK. Director Alexandre Aja and his crew shot CRAWL in Serbia, but persuasively establish and maintain the illusion of a Sunshine State blighted by the storm. Then Haley descends into the key interior: The crawlspace beneath her dad’s house, where she discovers the bloody, unconscious David lying in a far corner. She’s in the process of rescuing him…and then, at just about exactly the 20-minute mark, she is very rudely interrupted by a huge alligator that tries to make a meal out of them.
Working from a tight script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, Aja is not out for JAWS-esque power of suggestion (nor does he go for the sly satirical undertones of ALLIGATOR, the JAWS of this particular sub-subgenre, or the outrageousness of his own PIRANHA 3D). We get a good, long look at that first reptile and so does Haley, the better to instantly confirm the deadly jeopardy she and David are now in. And so the stage is set: With the area evacuated and the hurricane getting worse outside, Haley and David, once he wakes up, have to figure out how to escape to safety before the entire crawlspace floods.
Given the setup, it’s not hard to guess how the basic narrative will proceed: Father and daughter have to work though their familial and emotional baggage while wrestling with their perilous situation, and occasional, ahem, bit players will turn up so Aja and co. can have the gators get their nosh on. (Haley also manages to pick up David’s cute dog Sugar and bring her into the middle of the mayhem, for an extra bit of will-they-or-won’t-they tension.) It works because the Rasmussens have written neither Haley nor David as the obvious superior between them; both have issues to work out with each other, and each has to inspire the other to find the strength they both need to survive. Scodelario and Pepper develop a fast and plausible dynamic together, and the former gives Haley a physicality that convinces she could hold her own in these most dangerous circumstances—even if she, as well as David, absorb more punishment than any one of us could ever survive and manage to keep on fighting.
Aja, in a 180 from the sun-baked wide open spaces of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, does an equally solid job of staging horrific action in CRAWL’s close quarters. Wrangling largely digital alligators, he bestows them a sense of hungry menace and finds varied ways to shoot their stalking and attacks, spewing sufficient gore to make the point that these are rapacious killers while not dwelling sadistically on the grue. While there are the usual inconsistencies amidst the action (one gator can demolish a set of solid wooden stairs, but another can’t break through a glass shower door), the situations overall remain plausible in this context and the film moves swiftly enough that they don’t stick in the craw. In a season dominated by epics, CRAWL is a pleasing example of a different kind of summer movie: An unpretentious, straightforward bad-nature movie that (like THE SHALLOWS a few years back) plays a simple scenario for all it’s worth, and knows that what it’s worth is a little under 90 minutes.
See our interview with CRAWL stars Scodelario and Pepper here.