When an apocalyptic hurricane strikes Florida, aspiring collegiate swimming Haley (Kayla Scodelario) receives a call from her sister Beth, who informs her she has been unable to contact their father, Dave (Barry Pepper). Haley decides to check in on Dave, against the advice of local authorities, who are evacuating the area due to threats of flooding and general devastation.
Upon arriving at her father’s house, Haley finds the family dog, Sugar, unattended. Exploring the property, Haley finds her father unconscious and wounded in the cramped basement. And he’s not alone – a giant alligator is keeping him company in the claustrophobic crawlspace. And it seems intent on preventing Haley or her dad from escaping. As the storm rages outside and the water level in the basement slowly rises, Haley and Dave’s situation goes from bad to worse in this nail-biting, self-aware thriller.
Director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D) expertly ratchets up the tension throughout the film, never taking his foot off the pedal as, bit by bit, he removes any trace of hope for Haley and Dave. Whilst those who are not fond of small spaces or, for that matter, giant alligators will find plenty to be afraid of in this 87-minute rollercoaster, it’s not so much an out-and-out horror as a fun, deliberately over the top popcorn thriller.
Barry Pepper gives a suitably macho, ‘I wasn’t there for you enough’ performance as Haley’s dad Dave. It’s a testament to Pepper’s performing abilities that, despite Dave’s frequent exposition, and despite the fact that he seemed to come up with solutions that made no sense (“We have to wade through this alligator-infested water – just don’t splash!”), he kept the film rolling pleasantly along at enough of a pace to stop the audience questioning too hard his one-dimensionality. Credit must also go to Scodelario, who pants, gulps, and shrieks her way through the film, playing it as straight as can be. Without her committed performance, Crawl could easily have turned into a flaccid, sarcastic pseudo-thriller, but Scodelario is believable as a slightly resentful daughter who nevertheless is doing her best to love her failure of a father.
The severity of Dave’s injuries at the hands of his alligator captors are almost comical, and numerous times I found myself smirking as the film didn’t so much suspend disbelief as freeze it, smash it up, and throw it in the bin. Haley outswimming an alligator? Sure thing. A basement that feels like it’s the size of a football field? No problem. Alligators can’t find you unless you splash about? Okay then. But, crucially, the film is on the side of its characters, and as such viewers are swept along in Haley and Dave’s ridiculous predicament because the film makes you care about them, and you want to see how things play out for them.
If taken seriously, Crawl could be seen as yet another mindless disaster movie that takes too much liberty with its plot. But its numerous outlandish contrivances felt intentional, and frequently paid homage to other monster thrillers like Jurassic Park and Jaws. Every time an opportunity presents itself for Haley to escape, it’s almost immediately ripped from her hands before the audience can get too hopeful. Crawl is pure thriller storytelling – the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster drop ride. It’s not meant to be taken seriously (the ending credits music should be proof enough of this), and it’s a joy to behold – just make sure you see it with a crowd.