Crawl (2019)

Dir. Alexandre Aja. Starring Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Cso Cso

You know what’s great? Crawl is great.

  1. There is a dog named Sugar (Cso Cso) who shows up very early in the movie. She gets close-ups and everything, so naturally one feels an immediate closeness to her. Sugar is also such a good name for a dog, because the little term of endearment suits the way we treat them, and The dog, in such a picture, opens us up to a series of disturbing suggestions. The dog could die, after all, or perhaps be maimed in some way. The dog will at least be in danger. (There is a good argument to be made that by taking Sugar to her dad’s old house, gator-infested as it was, Haley may have actually saved her life. What if that condo where Dave left her flooded, and then she couldn’t get out? Hurricane Wendy is itself a reason to fear for Sugar’s life, and for a not inconsiderable part of the movie I was thinking about how people refuse to evacuate dangerous areas if they can’t bring their pets with them. ) The reason that Haley (Scodelario) goes down to this little hellhole is to check on her father (Pepper), but she finds Sugar first, and then Sugar helps Haley find Dave in that crawlspace. Sugar is never in major alligator danger in the movie, not in the way her people are, but the fact of her presence is always at least a little stressful, and there is of course something human in the way she is concerned about her people. She barks when they are in trouble, digs at the floor to try to help Haley push up a hatch. Most importantly, Sugar makes it to the roof with her family, where the movie implies that they will be rescued by a passing helicopter. Crawl knows what type of movie it is, which we’ll talk about later, and because it knows that it’s not some “serious” horror movie with “important themes” attached, it doesn’t need to impress us by making tough choices, such as, “Should we make everyone extra sad by killing the dog?” The answer is no! You can have a perfectly gripping movie where the dog gets rescued via helicopter after cheating death many times.
  2. A caveat. The movie does not explicitly say that the alligators aren’t piloting the helicopter at the end, so I think the ending is a touch ambiguous.
  3. The opening credits in Crawl feature a swim practice at the University of Florida. Clearly Haley will need to swim in this movie, and that’s fine. It doesn’t make the scene where Haley has to do an absolute dash to a boat parked at a gas station while alligators close in from literally every side any less meaningful when it happens. Haley does this sprint after having had one of her legs and one of her arms rather nibbled on by different alligators over the course of the picture, and instead of thinking about how at least one of her limbs should be broken, since alligators can—well, read the abstract here, because I think that’s a pretty good image—I was thinking about the student-athlete meme. That scene is missing at least one Bible verse, but still, what a trouper she is.
  4. While I’ve got the opening credits in mind, the closing credits are a work of art. Not the credits themselves, which are the standard white text on black background affair. The music. I giggled a little, as one does with presented with one of the weirdest flexes I have ever witnessed in a movie. Crawl is great.
  5. Let’s highlight a particularly solid piece of low-budget characterization. There are some flashbacks with young Haley and her dad, who was her swim coach when she was a girl. In the flashbacks, Dave is clean-shaven. In the present, Dave has this awful, scraggly, big divorce energy goatee going on. It makes Barry Pepper look way older, and I’m sure that when so much of the budget must have gone to CGI alligators and the production of that amphibious set, getting a goatee for free must have been great. The goatee also does most of Pepper’s acting for him. Unlike Scodelario, who gets a number of clear close-ups, the vast majority of the shots of Pepper are just darker. Part of that is purely location, since he’s stuck in a crawlspace and/or mostly underwater about 90% of the time, but when you can’t see his eyes as much, the scragglebeard does a good bit of work that lets us know how hard Dave is taking the absence of his wife and two daughters. I don’t know that I want to say a lot about the relationship between Haley and Dave, because the movie only gives lip service to it anyway as a stratagem to keep us from having to watch gators attack for literally seventy-five minutes, but if one of them is able to bring us close to the feeling of regret that they have about their relationship, it’s him.
  6. I want to just highlight a scene from this movie that should probably replace the state flag of Florida. Sitting on an alligator nest that looks like the crew stole from a natural history museum in Jacksonville or something, Haley opens fire on an alligator. In an alligator, actually. She’s holding a pistol, the alligator chomps on her arm, and she fires the clip into the gator’s brain as the alligator tries to abscond with her arm. Absolutely tremendous, and truly crackers. I would also take suggestions about changing the state flag of Florida to the image of Haley jamming a lit flare into an alligator’s eye as it tries to drown her, although I think an alligator lighting up from the inside has a little more panache.
  7. Nothing about Crawl made me think we should be doing anything to keep Florida in the Union, I’ll tell you that. (It does not look like Florida, probably because they filmed this sucker in Serbia. Astute observers will note that Serbia is not one of our fifty states. I will say that I love the water on this production, which looks very little like any water you might find in a hurricane, and looks more like what would happen if you diffused about a million sour apple jellybeans into a tank. That stuff is a radioactive green, which is less scary than the mud of your typical hurricane runoff, but which is also far more fitting for the heightened unreality of the premise.)
  8. The premise of Crawl is that alligators are hongry when the hurricane strikes this little town, and that their behavior is more like that of five hundred pound piranhas than it is of your average gator. They see people, which are big ol’ steaks in raincoats to them, and they chow down. Whenever they got a good bite on someone, blood just rushes out into the water all at once and leaves a trail. I love that this is the premise. Somehow this is movie is even more high-concept than Jaws, and on the whole it has simpler pleasures as well. The only person we know at all who ends up inside one of those big-bellied monsters is Wayne (Ross Anderson), who gets maybe seventy-five words to speak total, and who we last see pinned up against the entrance to the crawlspace. Wayne seems like a decent fella, but Quint he is not. The ones who matter are the Kellers and their dog, and the rest of the town, all six of ’em, is just gator bait. This helps to keep the movie contained just as much as the paucity of settings keep the movie contained. In the beginning, there’s a little bit of whiplash we’re moving so quickly. Haley finds her father in a bad, bad way in the crawlspace, and at fifteen to twenty minutes in it felt like the movie was almost over. But it fooled me; there was a beginning there, a beginning wrapped up with a tourniquet, and it really does not let up more than once or twice in the remaining hour or so.
    In the past few years, the idea of “prestige horror” has swept through critical circles. We could blame Get Out for it, or Robert Eggers, although I think it’s significantly more productive to blame Ari Aster or Luca Guadagnino. The basis of prestige horror, as far as I can tell, is that there is something supernatural smushed up tightly with a social or family issue. Hereditary uses demonology with grief; The Witch goes for demonology again, but for toxic masculinity, the patriarchy, whatever you’d like to call it. Midsommar got the most glowing notes from people who saw it as a story of a bad breakup first and a story about an extant pagan culture second. The new Suspiria is an absolute tirefire because it can’t decide if it’s most interested in witches, modern dance, or the Holocaust, and then chooses none of those. Get Out walks away from the supernatural a little bit—and wisely, because I think there’s a through line to be drawn between Charles Murray and the body-swapping that Bradley Whitford’s character makes possible—but on the whole that’s a science which is totally unexplainable except via magic. What these movies share, for better or worse, is a stronger interest in subtext than text, a greater fascination with horror than terror, and thus it’s worth noting that none of those movies are “scary” in the traditional sense. Unsettling, certainly, and thought-provoking, and anxious, but fear is not to be found as it was in The Exorcist or The Last House on the Left or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (That you could write a book about the subtext in any of those pictures proves, to me at least, that there ain’t anything stupid about them either.) This is interesting to me for two reasons. First, it’s amusing that so many critics are jumping over themselves to praise movies which make their jobs easier, that have beaten out any challenge of discovery in a movie. Second, it means that a prestige horror movie truly walks on a tightrope, for if the subtext-become-text has risen too quickly, like a diver surfacing at speed, then there’s nothing left for it to fall back on besides production values. What Midsommar has are production values, but if that’s all you have to offer you may as well make a music biopic.
    Enter Crawl, a movie which is focused on terror, and which succeeds again and again in doing something scary. This is not a movie that’s particularly heavy on jump scares either, mind. It has more than its share of good shots which are frightening, as when Haley finds a pair of bloody handprints on a pipe in the crawlspace. I love that scene where the gas station looters get some serious recompense for their thievery of an ATM. (Bortles!) The first one to go is the girl in the boat; her boyfriend is wading closer to the house where Haley is trapped, and his brother is trying to touch everything in the gas station. What comes back to the boat is an alligator, which we see in the back of the shot, and which is coming closer and closer to her. That is some scary stuff, and it’s done with a positively Chekhovian sense of perspective. There’s a way to look at the movie as a cautionary tale about climate catastrophe, certainly. It makes as much sense as Jaws does as an allegory for the Nixon administration, even though I think Jaws is much more interested in its allegory than Crawl might be in its own. All the same, it is a relief to watch a movie which tells you it’s going to be scary, gives you a few thrills along the way, and doesn’t force some issue for you to loudly chew on as you leave the theater. If I called Crawl “unpretentious,” that would sound like an insult, so instead I’ll call it “humble.” It comes to the genre with a sense of genuine humility, and that as much as anything makes this movie exciting.
  9. If Crawl is particularly clever about something, it is clever because the name seems to refer to basically everything. A great deal of the movie takes place in a crawlspace; “crawl” is a pretty good approximation of how alligators get around on land; choose your adjective in front of the word (“front,” “American,” etc.), but the stroke that Haley specializes in and uses in the movie’s climactic moments is the crawl. It’s a little bit chef’s kiss, sure, but I’m sure not going to punish anyone for polysemy.

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