CAST: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathairn, Jayson Warner Smith, Garret Dillahunt, Ahna O’Reilly, Eric Ladin, Jojo Regina, Luke David Blumm
RUNNING TIME: 126 mins
BASICALLY…: A young woman (Edgar-Jones), outcast from society, is thrust into a murder investigation…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
There is a strong whiff of irony that the anticipated film adaptation of Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a woman who is endlessly gossiped about by her down-looking peers, is currently being overshadowed by the gossip surrounding its author. In fairness, the allegations levelled against Delia and her husband Mark Owens are pretty serious; a pair of famed conservationists, the couple caused a storm in 1995 when, during filming of a television documentary about their efforts in Zambia, a poacher was shot and killed on-camera. In the years since, there has been much speculation that it was the Owens couple who were behind the cold-blooded murder, prompting an investigation that has led to both being wanted by Zambian forces for questioning in connection to the incident.
Normally, I do my absolute best to not let such gossip cloud over my judgement of the movie that happens to have been caught at the centre of the controversy, since I firmly believe that a movie should be assessed on its own merits instead of condemnation by mere association with, say, an actor accused of sexual assault, or in this case an author who might also be a murderer. However, everything that I just mentioned about Delia Owens and her debateable past is infinitely more interesting and entertaining than the movie itself, so it feels perfectly fine to connect the dots this time round.
A numbingly dull and tedious film, saved only by its admittedly stunning cinematography, Where the Crawdads Sing opens with a somewhat misguided framing device: a local boy, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), has been found dead amongst the marshes of 1969 North Carolina, and the prime suspect is a young woman named Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), known to the locals as the “Marsh Girl”. She is promptly arrested and put on trial for murder, with retired lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) representing her in court, and it is here that we flash back to the origins of the so-called “Marsh Girl”, including her miserable childhood with a cartoonishly abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) who has caused everyone else from her mother to her siblings to leave (yet none of them think to take the vulnerable young girl away with them from this violent household). The dad eventually leaves too, and Kya is left to fend for herself in her family home by the marsh, with the help of some kindly local Black shopkeepers – one of many instances in the story that feels slightly awkward to watch, given the borderline stereotypical attitudes this movie has toward race within a white-favouring narrative – and local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith), whom she eventually falls in love with. However, the oft-abandoned Kya soon finds herself in that position once more, and eventually her path crosses with soon-to-be-dead Chase whose own actions cause the “Marsh Girl” to become central to the investigation into his possible murder.
The film’s first big mistake is with that framing device: not even having read the book, I highly doubt that the source material is structured in exactly the same way, and here it just removes any suspense one might have had with this story, because mere seconds after the opening titles, the audience already knows the fate that befalls at least one of the main characters. From there, you’re left to patiently wait for everything else to align, but the ungodly slow pace as well as a real lack of any truly interesting events happening with these rather flat and obvious characters makes the two-hour running time feel so much longer, because – again – you know what is going to happen almost immediately. Writer Lucy Alibar, previously Oscar-nominated for co-writing the script for Beasts of the Southern Wild, fails to latch onto anything substantial to give her film adaptation the same kind of urgency that there apparently was in Owens’ book, and as a result the movie grows more and more uninvolving and even boring to watch with every passing minute, since there is precious little to really become invested in, whether it’s anyone among the bland list of characters, or the sometimes hilariously implausible story beats (at one point, Kya manages to land a publishing deal for a set of illustration books about that most sought-after topic of beach shells).
Where the Crawdads Sing also suffers from a inherent lack of social awareness, blissfully skipping over issues like racism, poverty and domestic abuse in a story set within a place at a certain point in history where all three would be impossible to avoid. Since the narrative is entirely centred around this young, conventionally pretty white woman, with supporting characters like those Black shopkeepers barely leaving a dent in the storytelling other than providing the basic fundamentals of the stock so-called “Magical Negro” archetype, it is a little discomforting to see a white-favouring story like this undermine its own characters of colour in this manner. Those other issues are glossed up to a point where you don’t entirely buy that they’re even issues at all for these characters; for someone who’s been forced to fend for themselves from childhood, Kya always manages to look as though she’s just emerged from a moderately-priced hair salon, and is remarkably clean despite spending her days surrounded by swamp wildlife. Admittedly, there are times when the cinematography lights this marsh rather gorgeously, but then other times it will look no different than your standard TV movie-of-the-week on the Lifetime channel, with lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones – despite doing perfectly fine in the film’s more tender scenes – often channelling her inner Valerie Bertinelli for a way too self-conscious dramatic performance that feels entirely believable.
It will be curious to see how this movie fares with people that have read the book it’s based on, but Where the Crawdads Sing shouldn’t have to rely solely on its built-in fanbase to be a successful adaptation. On paper, most of what is in this movie probably flows a lot better, but when projected up on to a screen, its painfully uninteresting flaws are much more obvious, and leave its audience so unentertained that the possibility of the original author being a cold-blooded murderer is more engaging than anything on display here.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Where the Crawdads Sing is a numbingly dull and unentertaining adaptation of the best-seller, which removes any tension with a misguided framing device and adds nothing to replace it, leaving the bland characters, socially unaware plotting and predominantly made-for-TV quality filmmaking out to dry.