And so from Dora a few days ago to Hayley. Played by Kaya Scodelario (The other secret weapon of the Maze Runner franchise and one half of one of my favorite Robbie Williams videos), Hayley Keller is a Florida U student on a swimming scholarship. She’s great. But she’s not quite great enough and her scholarship is in danger. So much so that she barely notices Hurricane Wendy as it changes direction. Until she gets a call from her sister. Their father, Dave (Barry Pepper, the other OTHER secret weapon of the Maze Runner franchise), isn’t picking up his phone and their old house is right in the path of the storm…
Horror requires a down payment on suspension of disbelief a lot of the time and Crawl takes that payment by a direct debit we all recognize. Hayley is caught in the vortex of familial obligation long before she’s caught in the flood waters, and her choices are all entirely understandable even if intellectually dubious. She can’t stand her dad. She’s worried sick about her dad. Of course she drives into the storm. Her journey, starting with that phone call from Beth, is also one back down into her past and her character. The break up of her parent’s marriage, the family dog, her dedication to swimming, her terror that she isn’t good enough and guilt at her perceived role in the divorce. Even the growth marks on the door frame in their home. The Rasmussen brothers’ script lays it all out like a line of bait and we follow it down into the cellar despite knowing full well what’s coming. Alexandre Aja has never been better than he is here and the direction, with cinematography by Maxime Alexandre, locks in on Hayley and on tiny atmospheric notes that become vital later on, This is a puzzle made of dirt, meat, water and terror and we’re shown every piece of the ladder Hayley, Dave and we will need to climb in that first half hour. A phone. A screwdriver. A radio. A pipe that’s a barrier until the flood waters rise. Everything we see plays a role, everything we see is part of the solution and the film’s middle half hour consists almost entirely of Hayley and Dave being very smart, thinking very hard and bleeding a lot.
I mentioned I liked this, right? I REALLY liked this.
Because what you don’t see is even more important. Aja isn’t coy with the movie’s in-house nightmares but he’s also pleasingly restrained with them. Countless moments of terror come from still water, as we’re reminded Hayley is a land mammal and her opponents aren’t. Aja borrows a play from early Ridley Scott too, constantly showing us the background water in shots where nothing bad happens before hitting the Kellers and us from an entirely different angle. It’s a cinematic rope-a-dope, it’s used about five times here and it always, always works. Likewise the pleasing brace of (partially) innocent bystanders that provide appetizers for the gators. They all have stories of their own, they’re all engaging and they’re all REALLY crunchy.
The other reason the movie works is just how great Scodelario and Pepper are. Pepper is the Michael Biehn of his generation, an effortlessly great character actor who never quite got the breakout role he richly deserved. Here he’s an absolute pit bull, determined to live so his daughter can and constantly putting his increasingly battered body through the wringer to do it. In doing so, the script also shows us just how much of a massive pain in the ass Dave clearly was to his kids growing up. And Hayley shows up anyway, because family, blood and found, beats the food chain any day of the week.
But the movie belongs to Scodelario. She brings her trademark authority and severity to Hayley and with it a physicality she’s never had a chance to show off before. Her first confrontation with the gator tells you everything you need to know about her; instinctive, brave, painfully human, tough as hell and absolutely terrified. She never stops working, never stops thinking and is rarely if ever off screen. There’s one extended underwater shot in particular which is Scodelario all the way and she tells the story of the scene brilliantly and silently. Every element of the character, from appearance to demeanor to physical ability serves the movie. This isn’t just one of the best lead performances I’ve seen this year, it’s arguably the most complete. When put next to Florence Pugh’s astonishing turn in Midsommar, it suggests something truly fantastic; Ellen Ripley’s granddaughters are building legacies of their own.
But for all that, the emotional resonance of Crawl is what I keep coming back to. It’s a movie about the realization that while you’re great you may not be Great enough and what you do next. Hayley’s predicament is one every creative on Earth will recognize, likewise any sufferer of anxiety, Generation Xer, Millennial or basically anyone with a pulse and a twitter account. It’s TOUGH right now, there are monsters everywhere and no one is going to save us but us.
So swim fast. Hayley’s got this covered. And so have we.