The Rigorous Creature Feature Craftsmanship of Crawl

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is brutally simple. A professional swimmer goes to see her father in Tampa during a hurricane, finds him injured in his basement, and tries to get him out through the rising floodwaters and past the alligators that have invaded her childhood home. Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper put in serviceable work as Haley and Dave Keller, an estranged father and daughter who once enjoyed a close relationship during Dave’s days as Haley’s swim coach. Their fractured relationship imbues the gore and action with just enough emotional weight to keep it interesting, though the material is thin enough that it starts to repeat near the end. 

In short, Crawl is that rarest of animals in our current climate of slick, colorless Disney mega-blockbusters: a genuinely solid B-movie. It succeeds not on branding or name recognition but because it’s fun to watch a competitive swimmer face down a basement full of alligators, even and perhaps especially if the whole thing feels kind of trashy and exploitative. Makeshift tourniquets, lush and corpse-filled grottos, a conventionally attractive woman getting tossed around by ten-foot reptiles, parent-child friction; it’s one grimy shock to the hindbrain after another. Crawl’s relentless pace allows it to skate past moments of shaky CGI and lukewarm dialogue about alpha predators and divorce to be an enjoyable, if shallow creature feature.

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Skin and Bones

Crawl is all craftsmanship, lavishing care on its creature effects, sets, and sound design and leaving its script little more to do than cultivate a minimum of emotional investment and the no-frills dirty work of moving Haley and Dave through the house. Its 87-minute running time is clean, its camera attentive and occasionally electrifying, as when a single shot tracks Haley through a brake of reeds, and when another slowly reveals the underbelly and dangling claws of an alligator resting near the surface as she swims beneath it. The gators themselves aren’t seamlessly real, but the incredible foley on their grunts and hisses and the rasp of their armored bodies moving over concrete is enough to sell the illusion. Their motions are fluid and savage, upsettingly brutal.

The film’s sets are pleasurable in their muddy, slimy ickiness, replete with moss and rot and muck. One, a grotto in an abandoned drainage pipe where an alligator has built her nest, is particularly evocative, a feral mirror to the family home above it. The house itself is minimally sketched but believable in its once-lived-in emptiness — records of childhood growth penciled on a wall, bare patches where paintings used to hang — but where it really shines is in later scenes of Haley matching wits and reflexes with alligators in flooded rooms and hallways. Her bathroom showdown with one of the huge reptiles is an especial delight, tense and brilliantly shot from above to resemble a kind of furious, vicious game of Tetris.

After the Flood

As individual creations the alligators get the job done, but in a movie so visibly unconcerned with any kind of larger picture the lack of a single identifiable creature positioned as a primary antagonist feels like a missed opportunity. Past the halfway point the sheer number of alligators starts to feel slightly numbing, and while there’s a nasty thrill to be had in seeing them frenzy over unlucky traffic cops and looters, the lack of intimacy in the portrayal eventually begins to tell. The last encounter between Haley and one of the animals feels perfunctory, empty of the tension which animates earlier scraps. Think of the shark in Jaws, singular by design, or the differently colored wolves in The Grey. There’s none of that here.

An earlier scene in which an alligator seizes Haley in its jaws and subjects her to a death roll — an underwater mauling meant to disorient and drown prey — is much more successful in its claustrophobic violence. Haley flashes through memories of her childhood as a competitive swimmer, a part of her life bound up in both trauma and triumph, while trying to reach a flare drifting in the water. As she fails again and again on each revolution, her consciousness visibly ebbing, the alligator’s armored bulk and the way its motion in the water flattens Haley’s clothes against her body and transforms her hair into a rippling banner come together to form one of the film’s most captivating images. 

Underwater and between its action scenes, Crawl excels. Its characters have enough chemistry to keep the whole thing moving — their irritable exchange about Haley’s erratic performance as a swimmer, held as alligators hiss and cough between them in the cramped, low-ceilinged basement is easily the cleverest, most winning writing in the movie — and its relentless monsters and stormy setting provide plenty of tension. It has an easy, muscular confidence in its own schlocky thrills you’d be hard-pressed to find in any of the summer’s other horror or action movies. That it doesn’t dig deeper when it has the chance is a shame, but Crawl remains a viciously enjoyable ride.

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