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Crawl (2019)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

[su_dropcap size=”5″]A[/su_dropcap]fter the highfalutin mind-screw of Midsommar, the lean, mean, and decidedly-retro horror of Crawl feels like a palate cleanser by comparison.  For a compact 87 minutes, the story churns with the frothy fury of brick-brown floodwater.  Most of the film functions as a two-character play, with a buncha growling CGI gators added, of course.  It ain’t the brainiest movie you’re ever gonna see.  It ain’t gonna rack up Oscar wins.  But, Crawl sets out to be an old-fashioned, armrest-grabbing hootenanny, and damned if it doesn’t accomplish exactly that.

The plot centers on Haley (Kaya Scodelario), a member of the University of Florida’s swim team.  She races with such singular ferocity that she barely notices that a massive hurricane is making landfall during one of her practices.  Beth (Moryfydd Clark), Haley’s bossy, distant sister, lets her know that their dad (Barry Pepper) isn’t answering his phone.  Turns out, Haley and her dad haven’t been on the best terms, meaning she has no idea about his well-being.  Wracked with guilt, Haley drives into the oncoming tempest to dad’s beachside death house.  She eventually tracks him down, badly-wounded, in the bowels of his creepy Stephen King-style basement.  As Haley tries to lug the man to safety, some mean ol’ gators pop out for a fancy feast.  Now, Haley and her dad are left stranded in a basement that’s quickly filling with swamp water, and with little hope of rescue.

What follows is a no-filler, all-killer stretch of suspense, as the the two characters attempt to finagle their way out of the gator-dungeon.  Director Alexandre Aja somehow manages to keep the action both intensely-claustrophobic and visually-coherent at the same time. For a movie that spends much of its time in some combination of darkness and bubbling mud-water, that’s no small feat.  So many thrillers get lost in murky cinematography and choppy editing, making Crawl feel refreshingly professional.

A film as focused as this requires a lot of its leads, and Scodelario and Pepper are up to the challenge.  Much of what we know about their characters derives from expositional tidbits of dialogue, so the two actors add a lot with subtle facial expressions and body language.  Haley is driven to the point of being emotionally distant, while her father is a volatile mixture of encouraging and abrasive.  It’s a testament to both performances that we know a lot about these people without being told much.

What Crawl lacks in ambition and scope, it more than makes up for with sturdy craftsmanship.  To borrow a bit singing parlance, this movie stays within its range.  Movies like Midsommar can aim to bewilder us, provoke us, or simply stick in our brains like glue.  Art can be frustrating, and that film frustrated the holy hell out of me.  Crawl aims to be flavorful junk food, and it succeeds.  Cinema can be a place of escape, and that’s exactly what the visceral thrill of Crawl provides.

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