Director: Olivia Newman
Stars: David Strathairn, Taylor John Smith, Daisy Edgar-Jones
In spite of the middling reviews that started snaking out onto the internet about Where the Crawdads Sing, I was lured out to the cinema for one of the month’s few wide releases, mainly thanks to the venue inaccurately listing the running time at a cool 93 minutes; just about as long as you want a comfortably so-so movie to be.
A ‘global phenomenon’ that I wholesale missed, the idea of a swampland mystery is evocative enough on it’s own, even if the scant trailers hadn’t instilled much sense of urgency or intrigue.
I imagine that the readers of Delia Owens’ fluffy prose – the ones to whom the book struck such a chord – might wince at the manner in which Olivia Newman’s film clips through the opening set up. Experiencing a book is different to watching a movie. A book moves at the pace of the reader; has more time to expand in the mind between chapters. Adaptations of beloved text always seem so rushed to those who have lived in those worlds and taken them as a luxury. This early urgency boded well for the hour-and-a-half duration I had expected.
But Where the Crawdads Sing is not a 93 minute movie. It just passes two hours. And it’s pacy start gives way to stretches of leg-swinging aimlessness, which make the whole feel much longer than it’s actual 125. I came out of the multiplex stiff-necked and tired, as though I’d just marathoned a tedious Netflix miniseries never to be remembered.
Middling was optimistic.
This featherweight drama takes place among the idyllic marshlands of North Carolina circa 1969, not that you’d know that from the appearance of reclusive outcast Catherine ‘Kya’ Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones). Perhaps to deliberately ‘other’ her from the rest of the nearby suburbanites and their (slightly more) period specific attire, Newman has Kya outfitted and quaffed as though she’s prepping for a modern day H&M spring fashion shoot; a Timotei shine in her hair, with occasional shades of Cath Kidston to mix things up. An abandoned child left to fend for herself, Kya makes living off-grid seem like a boujee affair; an aspirational lifestyle missing only a ‘Live. Laugh. Love.’ canvas print on the wall of her rustic abode.
But Kya’s in a pickle. Generic-as-hell local boy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) has been found dead on the shores of her territory, and circumstantial evidences places Kya on trial for his murder. Her only hope is good-natured defense attorney, Tom Milton (David Strathairn). When we’re not being subjected to updates from the courtroom non-drama, the film flits back through the years of Kya’s existence, focusing chiefly on her romance with a similarly bland local fella named Tate (Taylor John Smith). Their montage months together are frames in sun-dappled serenity. Like Crawdads as a whole, it’s a picturesque postcard utterly devoid of charisma or chemistry.
Author Owens (now a suspected murderess in her own right) seems adept at the kind of hokey, winsome dialogue one might find printed on a motivational poster, and screenwriter Lucy Alibar remains faithful to this instinct. Perhaps this guided Newman’s hand a little too much? Crawdads seems reticent at all times to roll in the muck of it’s own story. It is too pristine. Too clean. With it’s own reality rendered so flimsily, the scant melodrama that it does yield has a light, soap opera feel, while the running preoccupation with violence against women comes to seem like the movie’s only dramatic crutch.
There’s plenty of stalwart talent on the peripheries of this picture. Strathairn coasts with an underwritten role. Better are Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer, Jr. as the general store owners who befriend Kya (though the material they’ve given is one step away from racial stereotype). But the leads ultimately sink the picture. Edgar-Jones is hotly tipped – and proven in the likes of Fresh – but looks and seems wholly out of step with the movie she’s in the middle of. Dickinson – who also has impressive previous form – and Smith, however, are beige and interchangeable.
Dramatically inert, dawdling and entirely predictable, Crawdads fails to live up to it’s Southern Gone Girl aspirations. The emphasis is skewed to how magical this natural haven is. But even this reads as false. Newman’s methodology is too syrupy, too gilded. While watching one can’t help but think of the likes of Jeff Nichols’ Mud, Eve’s Bayou, Beasts of the Southern Wild, season one of True Detective, even wonky ’90s feral-woman tale Nell. These are all thematic touchstones that understood that a place will provide it’s own atmosphere and beauty, even the heady and dark variety. Newman’s fussy attempts at the same make Crawdads feel like it was carefully reproduced in a studio.
Her heavy-handed efforts to snatch that Malickian magic hour gold result in an empty palm.