2022 | PG-13 | starring Daisey Edgar-Jones, David Strathairn | directed by Oliva Newman | 2h 5m |
Normally, this is where I’d do a summary of the plot of a film before we can talk about it. Where the Crawdads Sing is so silly and so dumb that it will be more fun to tease the story out during the course of this review. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Delia Owens and produced by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, the one that brought Big Little Lies among other things to TV acclaim. It has all the superficial marks of a prestige film and comes off more like a parody of this kind of movie you’d see on another TV show. Go to the movies in Seinfeld and you might see Death Blow, Cry Cry Again, Rochelle/Rochelle, Mountain High, Sack Lunch and Where the Crawdads Sing. A full-blown unintentional parody of the genre itself.
The story starts with a murder, of course, a young man at the bottom of a watch tower with a grate open in a North Carolina marsh. The obvious explanation that he fell just can’t be true so the cops and the town assume it’s murder and assume that a young girl they call The Marsh Girl killed him. The Marsh Girl is Kyra Clark (young Jojo Regina and teenage Daisey Edgar-Jones). We see her abusive father abuse his wife and several children and her mother walk out on them and disappear. Eventually, her dad chases off every other kid before he (Garret Dillahunt, typecast in wife-beater roles) finally leaves and young Kyra is forced to fend for herself.
But this is a romance designed for beach reading so somehow, someway, not one but two strapping young southern men row up to Kyra’s shack in the swamp, immediately fall in love and want to date her. The first, Chase, take the time to each the illiterate marsh girl how to read and right before having to leave for college. “You can’t throw your life away for that Marsh Girl”, his dad says. “But Dad, I love her” or something. He leaves, but not before the movie pulls off my favorite only-in-a-movie sex trope: guy on top, woman staring at the ceiling, he thrusts 3 or 4 times, then rolls off and declares how good it was. Then the next guy, Tate, the guy who ends up dead, just wants to bang her. And the two guys fight over the swamp girl. This thing is a crazed fantasy where women do nothing, have nothing to bring to the table, live in poverty in a swamp and men will still fight over you.
Kyra can draw and uses that talent to get herself by. For those looking for a message movie, that’s a good one, but this also comes very easy for her. She is immediately whisked off to a publishing house to pitch a book of drawings of shells. It’s a bad message movie designed for people who want their movies to have positive messages.
Crawdads desperately tries to bring back the mighty attorney films of the 90s, movies like A Time to Kill or every To Kill a Mockingbird knockoff where the southern heat blazes into the courtroom and a lone attorney goes up against the whole town. As a courtroom drama, the movie is terrible. We see very little of the criminal investigation or the strategy of the attorney (David Strathairn, the only one in this movie keeping his dignity). We get plumb typical courtroom movie dialog like: “The prosecutor is going to throw a lot of fancy words at you”. It’s hard to generate any tension from this because the core mystery is so dumb.
You can see how this story could have captivated as a book. This is material where good prose can immerse us in the atmosphere of the swamps, of the small southern town in the 60s, of the courtroom tension. TV director Olivia Newman is tasked with putting the book on screen, and that’s all she does. In that transition to this very literal visual medium all atmosphere is lost, all themes become superficial. What’s left is a laughable, clattering mess of cliches.