From a critic, “good for what it is” always sounds like a movie’s being damned with faint praise, as if failing to transcend whatever idea is at the heart of a story actually constitutes failure. But when you’re making a movie about a young woman and her father fighting off alligators during a hurricane, don’t you want that film to be exactly what it is? Quite frankly, the more a filmmaker tries to gussy up a premise like that with superfluous details and digressions, the worse it tends to be.
All of which is why Crawl, Alexandre Aja’s streamlined thriller about just that concept, manages to be so effective. Coming from the director of Piranha 3D, it’s easy to assume that this film’s tongue is firmly in its cheek, the camp level is high, and its goal is to generate as much gore per minute of celluloid. But Aja aims for a more naturalistic survival thriller - more Die Hard than Lake Placid - that proves genuinely suspenseful, thanks to a smartly contained environment, few acts of plot-necessitated stupidity, and strong, relatable performances from Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper.
Scodelario (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) plays Haley Keller, a very good but not-quite-great swimmer who goes looking for her father Dave (Pepper) during the early stages of a Category 5 tropical hurricane when her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) calls with news that he hasn’t answered his phone and is possibly missing. Ignoring warnings from the local police, Haley ventures to her childhood home, where she finds Dad unconscious and seriously injured in the crawlspace. But just as she attempts to drag him back to safety, an alligator attacks, forcing the two of them to retreat to one of the few safe corners beneath the house.
Slowly recovering, Dad helps hatch a plan to escape, but their danger escalates considerably when water begins flooding the space, exposing them not only to alligators that can more easily hunt, but the imminent risk of drowning if they can’t get out before it fills up. But even as the authorities arrive on the scene to search for stranded homeowners, the rising waters play host to an increasing number of bloodthirsty gators, and the imminent threat of nearby levees breaking promises to flood the area completely, even if Haley and her father are able to escape death beneath their family home.
Again, given Aja’s pedigree with campy showdowns between aquatic monsters and hapless coeds, not to mention this particular horror subgenre’s penchant for leaning into cartoonish spectacle, Crawl already has a few strikes against it - at least in terms of immediately taking the movie seriously. But the script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen treats both the human characters and their beastly adversaries with a sobering gravity that sustains a palpable sense of danger and a consistent feeling of believability even when Haley and her dad are shifting their attention from desperate rescue attempts to delicate familial reconciliations. The latter never overwhelms the former, but Aja draws out the complex dynamic between father and his estranged daughter specifically through, rather than in spite of, the peril in which they find themselves.
Moreover, Aja depicts the alligators themselves as realistic beasts - a swarming menace able to inflict immediate and brutal pain - but they’re never super-sized nor supernaturally capable; there’s likely a few cheats in there somewhere, but it never feels like a battle of wills between Haley, her dad and the ‘gators, but a true fight for survival against a virtually prehistoric but convincingly physical force of nature. That said, they of course need someone to dismember, as well as some additional characters to complicate Haley and her dad’s escape attempt, and the Rasmussens’ script skillfully introduces characters that enter the story organically - and inevitably exit it as food.
Scodelario is a dynamic, gifted actress, and under what appears to have been a mandate not to shriek in terror, she gives Haley a strength and determination that makes her much more than just a potential victim. Even if the script stacks the deck in terms of her underwater capabilities - there’s a scene where she holds her breath for what seems like several minutes - she convinces the audience that Haley is capable of pulling such things off. Meanwhile, Pepper beautifully conveys weary self-disappointment as Dave, but it’s that character’s endless resourcefulness, and eventually, resilience to life-threatening injury, that test the tensile strength of realism. Nevertheless, they make a great pair, working together to solve escalating problems while working through their issues as parent and child.
Aja’s versatility has never felt as vibrant as it does here, turning out a lean, smart, ruthless thriller that knows how to scare an audience without sacrificing his characters either as fodder for gore gags or as ciphers for a paper-thin narrative. At 87 minutes, it jumps right into the story, puts its heroine through her paces, and never takes shortcuts to generate suspense, much less manufacture phony drama. In which case, yes, Crawl definitely is very good for what it is; but in an era where screenwriting seems to demand gymnastic complications and characters with long-winded, distracting personal problems, to pare down a story like this to its most essential elements - survival, and humanity - it may be even better for what it isn’t.