Growing up in Miami, I learned there are two types of Floridians: those who respect Nature in all her complex glory and those who don’t. Haley Kelley — the dynamic lead of Crawl, played with white-knuckle intensity by Kaya Scodelario — might respect nature, but that doesn’t stop her from defying an evacuation and rushing headlong into a Category 5 hurricane in order to save her father, Dave (a perfectly scuzzy and heartfelt Barry Pepper). When she finds him with a broken leg — bone protruding from gnarled flesh — in the crawl space of their old family home, she doesn’t cower. She continues onward with an unmatched brio as alligators invade their flooded home. For Haley, the bonds of family are more important than her own safety; she’s as awe-inspiring to witness as the dark, ravaging hurricane overhead.
Crawl is a great example of a simple story exceedingly well-told. It’s a bloody adventure full of teeth-gnawing turns of fortune, mordant wit, vicious gator kills, and surprising tenderness — that clocks in at a blessedly fleet 87 minutes. It’s a perfect horror film for the summer, as much an ode to the cataclysmic, humbling aspects of Mother Nature as it is a love letter to father-daughter relationships. The latter dynamic provides the film’s tender through line, keeping us invested in the survival of the only main characters in the movie. Some of the most fun I’ve had in the theater this summer was watching Haley navigate creature-infested waters, balance trepidatiously on the sink as the waters rise, or with teary-eyed regret create a tourniquet for her gnawed thigh. Scodelario is great at communicating various levels of pain and discomfort as she traverses gross, grimy small spaces in order to survive. Crawl is a gut punch in cinematic form, a grimy ode to the Floridian environment, but none of it would work without her transfixing performance.
Walking into Crawl, I didn’t expect to be transported back to my own childhood as a young girl growing up in Miami, a fierce member of my swim team who survived Hurricane Andrew with my family cramped in a windowless bathroom, listening to the wind sing to us. But I felt a strange kinship with Haley from the beginning. When we first meet her, she’s staring ahead with a feral intensity as she prepares for a swimming competition at her college in Gainesville. She comes in second place, her sullen reaction communicating everything we need to know about her inner drive for perfection. Flashbacks threaded throughout the film give glimpses into Haley’s complicated relationship with her newly divorced father, who once coached her. Later, as she cries out in pain or hesitates at the mammoth odds against her, I found myself yelping, lurching, and cowering in my seat. She represents the subterranean thrills women seek in horror, where a heroine’s ambition isn’t inconsequential or underplayed, but rather the crowning jewel of her personality.
In Florida, you’re constantly reminded of the scope and power of your surroundings, and how small humanity can seem in the face of it. Coral snakes underfoot. Gators in the water. The clouds above hang low, apocalyptic. Director Alexandre Aja (the French filmmaker best known for Haute Tension) and writers Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen understand this, mining the anxiety for all its bloody worth. But the film is dented slightly by its inability to technically capture the heat and humidity of its setting, or the particular heavy, amber quality of the Florida light. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre chooses a glow a touch too white and clean (perhaps a result of the film not actually being shot in Florida, but in Siberia, though exterior footage was shot in Tampa). Another aesthetic issue is the score, laid on a shade too thick during the emotional conversations between Haley and Dave. They’re too similar to get along; Haley blames herself for her parents’ divorce, feeling Dave’s dedication to her as a swimmer distracted him from seeing the loneliness in her mother.
But where it truly counts, Crawl more than delivers. The kills are inventively brutal, dashing Haley’s hope of rescue as quickly as candy-apple red blood pools in the water around the gators’ unwitting victims. (Keep an eye out for the white girl with cornrows who gets absolutely decimated by a gator, which is definitely a selling point of this lean, mean flick.) The movie is full of indelible, often nasty surprises without ever coming across as unnecessarily bleak — enormous reptiles jumping from basement waters, their eyes gleaming just before appendages are ripped from sockets. But it’s Scodelario’s face — brimming with a fire no hurricane can extinguish — that ultimately fuels the film and gives it its most lasting, evocative image.