starring Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Morfydd Clark, Ross Anderson
written by Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen
directed by Alexandre Aja
by Walter Chaw Haley (Kaya Scodelario) swims in college. She's good. But Alexandre Aja's economical, fierce Crawl opens with Haley coming in second in a freestyle leg. Although she takes it in stride, while talking to her sister and infant nephew a little later she makes snapping gestures with her mouth that hint at some intensity driving her and perhaps seeping into her familial relationships. A quick flashback shows a younger Haley being coached by dad, Dave (Barry Pepper), who tells her not to give her competitors the pleasure of seeing her cry. He reminds her that she's an "apex predator." The script, by the team of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, is a marvel of spartan efficiency. It's a bear trap. The prologue sets up in just a few brief strokes that the film will be about perseverance, programming, family...and apex predators.
Crawl wastes no time. Haley, with help from the family pooch, tracks down her dad--alligator-bit and unconscious in the house-length and rapidly flooding root cellar of Dave's basement. Just before all of this transpires, Haley screams for her father against immense grey cloud banks and lashing winds in a clear homage to the still-horrifying tableaux of Dorothy looking for her family in The Wizard of Oz, and it captures the same sort of feeling of helpless despair for our hero. Doom is coming. Framed small against the wilderness in a red windbreaker, she's an almost subliminal, Roland Barthes-ian shout-out to Little Red Riding Hood as well--on her way to a safe family home having no idea there's a wolf waiting for her there. The "wolf" in this instance is a giant alligator nested in a drain beneath the house. Having a basement in Florida may be bad architectural design, but it's brilliant design for conflict in that the jungle of pipes--and, in one virtuoso action sequence in a film packed with them, wires--provides a brilliant labyrinth for Haley to navigate while dragging her father's body behind. Jungians will have a field day here, while hardcore Argento fans will place Aja's homage to Suspiria's controversial sequel Inferno. Instantly derided as a film without much depth, Crawl is actually a film with surprising depths, should you choose to decode it.
Should you not, Crawl is also that endangered species in modern filmgoing: a movie that clocks in at under ninety minutes. There's a moment at about the halfway point where Aja pays direct homage to Jaws in the fate of a couple of would-be looters in a way so joyful that I screamed both times I watched the film in just its first 24 hours of release. Another scene pays off Chekhov's swim meet by suggesting that Haley can swim faster than an alligator in an impromptu 50-meter freestyle; the shifting perspectives between Haley on the surface and the gator underneath reminded me so much of Tremors that I found it impossible to resist Crawl's warping of physics and physiology. It's fun, in other words--riotously fun. I've not always been a fan of Aja's films. I found his remake of The Hills Have Eyes to be foul and Horns to be superfluous and foul, though High Tension remains something like a bellwether for the brief-lived New French Extremity and Crawl is easily his best work since then. They share a ferocious female lead, of course, but they also share a sense of headlong, reckless joy in the ruthless manipulation of the audience. Crawl is the more mature of the two films in that it's not interested in contrivances in its narrative, only brilliantly-choreographed action sequences that have Haley and Dave engaged in the messy process of survival in a disintegrating and vengeful world. It's smarter than it needs to be by saying less than it could have said, all while serving as a reminder of what CGI can do when not asked to do stupid shit like photorealistic singing lions. It's fucking great and I'll see it again before it leaves theatres.