Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
CRAWL’s catchy premise, involving a hungry gaggle of gators taking advantage of Mother Nature’s fury to feast on human flesh, is the stuff of many anxiety-inducing nightmares. It’s also a cleverly coded allegory for a familial drama about an estranged father and daughter struggling to mend their broken relationship. Hear me out: The blood-thirsty alligators are manifestations of life’s devastating setbacks the duo have been forced to navigate. Director Alexandre Aja’s horror-fueled creature feature is visceral, vicious and visually compelling.
Competitive swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper) haven’t been on speaking terms when she gets a call from her concerned sister Beth (Morfydd Clark). She implores Haley to go check on their dad since he’s unreachable by phone and a category 5 hurricane is fast approaching. Hayley reluctantly agrees to, thinking her stubborn father is simply defying local law enforcement’s evacuation orders. She’ll wish it was as simple as that.
When she arrives at their childhood home, and after searching most of the house thoroughly (a genre trope for the audience to map the layout), she discovers the grim news. He’s passed out and severely injured in the muddy, rat-infested crawl space under the garage. Not only that, there are two giant alligators trapped with them, stalking their movements. With barely any hope in sight, Floridian flood waters rising and the torrential wind and rain barreling down upon them, the Kellers must weather the storm, using their wits and wisdom to survive.
The toothy thriller, written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, is one lean, mean machine. It doesn’t waste much time setting up the blessedly simple physical and psychological stakes for these characters. Physically, Dave and Haley must flee the imminent danger before being digested and mentally, they must overcome personal anguish over the strain of divorce in order to survive this ensuing disaster. The filmmakers don’t over-complicate the monster-on-the-loose mayhem either, which keeps the snappy pace moving.
Frequently, scenes are layered, pulling double duty. We learn in tandem about the pair’s busted bond and the hurricane making landfall. The tension-fused set pieces when dad and daughter are working together to escape their threatening captors are often character-building exercises in which the two reconnect and repair their familial fissures. Her struggles as an athlete provides a source of friction, but those same frustrations are later weaponized as a tool for survival. The gators represent the terrible trials and tribulations (divorce, separation, estrangement) they’re confronted. But also, you know, torturous death. This is best demonstrated in the climax set in Haley’s bedroom, now underwater, as she attempts to cast off her previous defeats (flashing back on those crushing personal moments) by breaking free from a gator’s vise grip.
It’s also fun and engaging seeing Haley and Dave put what they learn to good use, whether that be how she negotiates her way to the “last resort” escape route (the most dangerous one, naturally), or how he uses his brain and, albeit compromised, brawn to create a distractive device. The villains themselves are given a heavy menacing presence through sound design and animated physicality, as their tails swoop and flick, crashing against walls. Their kills satiate audience bloodlust to see bystanders – potential rescuers like the police and a pack of looters – tossed around like rag dolls and ripped apart. Dave perseverance through some horrific bloody travails also get ample screen time, upping the gore factor.
Aja utilizes the widescreen format brilliantly – so much so, if you were to watch this with the sound off, you could still follow the story. Subject placement plays a large role as does the camerawork. He evokes the “God’s eye” perspective to ramp up tension when an alligator pens her in the shower. At another point, the camera takes the gator’s POV – as a loving homage to JAWS. Plus, the filmmakers build in a nod to JURASSIC PARK.
Aja and company teach us the skills to endure in the face of death, but also that living in Florida isn’t for the faint of heart.
CRAWL is now playing.