Where the Crawdads Sing builds a preposterous murder mystery alongside a preposterous coming-of-age story, and hopes that one will distract you from the other. In fact, this film is so stilted and uneven, sheer ludicrousness is the only thing it does consistently well. Delia Owens’ novel has millions of fans, and undoubtedly the story’s humid sprawl plays better on the page, but this cinematic adaptation is an unmitigated bust.
Set deep in the North Carolina marshes, the film centers on Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), an indigent girl left to raise herself. Over time, Kya takes on a kind of Boo Radley mythology: The locals refer to her as the Marsh Girl–a grimy, feral creature with only a flimsy tether to humanity. She’s a monster, they whisper. The Missing Link.
The film splits between two timelines: In the main plot, the town’s hunky quarterback (Harris Dickinson) turns up dead in the marshland, and Kya is the prime suspect in his murder. Tom Milton (David Strathairn), an Atticus Fink knockoff, feels pity for the girl, and takes her case pro bono. Naturally, Milton isn’t just arguing the case–he’s also fighting against the insular hatefulness of small town gossip. The Marsh Girl is a weirdo, everybody figures. She must be guilty.
As Kya’s mystery unfolds, Crawdads also flashes back to how she came to be the Marsh Girl. We see her as a little girl, stuck living under the volcanic maelstrom of an alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt). Over time, Kya’s mother and siblings pack up and hightail it outta there, cruelly leaving her to languish in this abusive environment alone. As she will do time and again, Kya adapts, and learns to placate her father’s violent mood swings. One day, he disappears, too. Still a preteen, Kya must come of age in almost total isolation.
Almost. Jump ahead a few years, and our hero manages to meet two studly dudes out there in the swamp. Tate (Taylor John Smith) lives nearby, and offers kindness and regular company. They begin to fall in love, until Tate pulls a major bonehead move and breaks Kya’s heart. This paves the way for Chase (Dickinson)–“the finest quarterback this town has ever seen”–to take a sociopathic interest in the Marsh Girl. As she has no social currency, Chase can be more of himself around her. Put another way, he can chug Budweisers and make hayseed comments without any guilt.
Okay, let’s break down the ways I couldn’t stand this movie. First off, before we actually see Kya, the movie takes great pain to build her up as a swamp beast. In fact, I was expecting to see something that had escaped from a Despression-era freak show. (“Look behind the curtain….if you dare!!!”) When the cops first come for Kya, the filmmakers even tease us by only showing Kya sprinting from behind. When they pull her out of the bog, we get our first look, and…Sweet Baby Jesus, what are we gonna see?!
A Revlon model. That’s what. Kya has blemish-free skin, perfect teeth, and voluminous hair that suggests an unlimited supply of conditioner. Her makeup looks like it was done by a team on a movie set. (“She’s the Marsh Girl, if the marsh is next to an Ulta,” was my wife’s summation. “She’s contoured.”) No joke, Kya lives in a shanty with no electricity–it’s ri-goddamn–diculous that she permanently looks ready for her sorority’s rush week. Go Youtube a few videos of people who grew up alone in the woods. None of them look like something out of The Princess Diaries.
Even worse, the movie commits a sin common to literary adaptations: Dreamy, overcooked voiceover narration. Kya unloads her own story in a deluge of flowery prose, all in a clumsy attempt to gorge us on globs of exposition. (“Great writers show; bad writers tell” was a phrase that repeated in my head.) This film is a testament to why you don’t pack narration into a movie. For every To Kill a Mockingbird or Shawshank Redemption, where the voiceover is a vital and iconic part of the experience, there are twenty movies like this, where it’s just an obnoxious distraction.
For all of Crawdad‘s faults (even that title makes my eyeballs twitch), I can’t fault the performers. As Kya, Edgar-Jones is earnest and likable. She’s the best thing about the entire movie. Strathairn is an old pro, and he imbues Tom with a well-worn charm. Michael Hyatt and James Macer Jr. bring genuine humanity to their roles as an elderly couple who run the local general store and act as surrogate grandparents to Kya. Chase is a woefully underdeveloped antagonist, but Dickinson does what he can.
Furthermore, this is a great-looking film. The mossy, murky Carolina swampland is a character unto itself, and director Olivia Newman captures it in stunning beauty. Likewise, the courtroom and town-based scenes feature a dark, moody atmosphere that only grows stronger as the story progresses.
Still, these are only pleasant surprises in an aggressively mediocre movie. Where the Crawdads Sing is too goofy to be suspenseful and too artificial–too written–to be moving. (Those closing scenes thunk right into the mud.) After two hours, I can’t say where the crawdads even sing, but that’s probably where this film belongs.
126 min. PG-13. On demand.