Alright, I’m just going to come right out and say it; I really, really enjoyed Alexandre Aja’s 2010 film Piranha 3D. Some may scoff at the French filmmaker’s tendency towards schlocky B-movie tropes, but I would argue that his films revel in their own self-awareness, all the while delivering the thrills, kills and scares that horror fans like myself crave.
In his latest outing, Crawl, released earlier this year, it might seem on paper that Aja is returning to familiar territory with another film based around ravenous creatures with prehistoric origins and a taste for humans. However, right from the opening sequence we are presented with a far more intimate film that avoids any overt tongue-in-cheek antics, opting instead for a humanistic approach that shows a welcome maturity in his direction.
Despite being a monster movie, Crawl is decidedly more reserved in its approach to the genre. This is particularly apparent given it primarily centres on a young competitive swimmer named Hayley Keller (Kaya Scodelario), who checks on her father Dave (Barry Pepper) during an impending storm, only to find both she and her father trapped in the underground crawl space of their family home with ferocious alligators.
To be clear, Crawl proudly wades into B-movie territory, but any potential hollowness is offset by Aja’s tense approach to the material, along with with dialogue that, while not necessarily poetic, nonetheless transcends B-movie trappings with character interactions that are both meaningful and emotionally resonant.
Aja, as it happens, is fully aware of the genre he is dealing with, and that comparisons with Jaws are inescapable. Thus, Aja impishly acknowledges the Spielberg classic’s influence with an ornament of a shark eating a person in lead character Haley’s car, which is the metaphorical equivalent of the director winking directly into the camera. What’s more, Aja even deliberately evokes Jaws in select parts of his direction, which impressively comes off as reverent pastiche rather than ham-fisted rip-off.
One of the most surprising elements of Crawl is how logically written it is for a film about carnivorous alligators.
The writing is devilishly clever in how it develops thematic and narrative occurrences throughout, with the latter half of the film capitalising on much of what had come before in satisfying ways. Without giving away too much, writers Shawn and Michael Rasmussen find a way to deliver all the violence that horror fans seek and expect from an Alexandre Aja film, but in a manner that makes each death matter without distracting from the crucial dynamic between its two central characters.
That being said, there are some dramatic elements that feel unresolved come the film’s relatively rushed ending, but this is a minor gripe considering Crawl’s moment-to-moment strength, which sacrifices potentially stifling expository dialogue in favour of maintaining the tense momentum that defies the film’s title. At times, the characters can say a lot more through their mutual survival than words can convey.
Of course, what ultimately sells these characters are the performances of Scodelario and Pepper in the lead roles.
Scodelario gives a commendable natural performance that crucially adds to the film’s emotional magnetism. She sells every iota of her performance, from Haley’s struggles at being second-best, whether it be at swimming or living in her older sister’s shadow, to each painful grunt that conveys the inner strength of her character. A film like Crawl doesn’t necessarily need a devoted performance like Scodelario’s, but the actress emphatically establishes herself as a vital part of the film’s ultimate creative success.
British Columbia native Pepper also makes his case with a committed performance that remembers the little things of his character. The actor never forgets that, say, that his character’s leg is broken, continuously selling it while reminding audiences of his character’s strength in the face of overwhelming adversity. This is a welcome return to critical and commercial form for Pepper, who I’ve had a soft spot for since seeing him in Saving Private Ryan, though he has been relatively below the radar in recent years.
All this proves what I have always maintained, which is that making you care about the characters makes you care about what happens to them. Crawl does this throughout, all the while benefiting from what I find to be Aja’s best directorial effort to date. This is a deceivingly clever monster movie that, despite its own acknowledged lack of originality, squanders very little, ticking all the right boxes for fans of the genre. Make no mistake, this isn’t just my favourite monster movie of 2019, it’s my favourite horror flick.