Review: Adapted from a Best-Selling Book, Where the Crawdads Sing Foregoes Grit for a Murder Mystery Soap Opera

This is an odd little movie based on an improbably popular novel by Delia Owens (adapted by Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild) and starring rising talent Daisy Edgar-Jones (Fresh, “Normal People”) as Kya, a young woman living in the marshlands of Barkley Cover, North Carolina, where she was abandoned by her family at a young age and grew to respect and eventually catalog the wildlife around her. According to the novel, Kya found popularity after writing several books about the plants and animals in her part of the American South, but her isolated lifestyle also made her a target, especially during the unforgiving 1950-60s, a time when outsiders were not exactly embraced by the community at large.

When the Crawdads Sing opens with the death of a young man named Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), who climbed a fire station lookout tower and fell to his death. At first believed to be either suicide or an accidental death, the lack of any fingerprints or other evidence to support those theories makes the police suspect foul play, and Kya quickly becomes their leading suspect, because the two had a prior relationship. Her attorney, Tom Milton (David Strathairn), believes this is a clear case of bias against this quiet, odd but quite kind woman (known to the locals as “Marsh Girl”), simply because she doesn’t live like everyone else. As her trial commences, we are able to go through her life story to find out just how she ended up being accused of this horrible crime.

Produced by Reese Witherspoon and directed by Olivia Newman (First Match), Crawdads plays out like a gothic, swampy mystery about Kya (played as a young girl by Jojo Regina), whose mother leaves the family because of her abusive, alcoholic husband (Garrett Dillahunt). Over the next few years, Kya’s brothers and sisters also leave, until it’s only her left behind under the fiery, religion-twisted eye of her dad, who eventually also leaves her to fend for herself, which she does. A Black couple (Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who own the local general store look after Kya from a distance and are able to supply her with necessities when they can, but mostly Kya fishes, grows things, paints the local fauna and critters, and survives.

Up to this point in the story, I was with it, but as Kya grows older and more curious about the rest of the world, she allows herself to fall for a local boy, Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), and they fall deeply in love. But for reasons that are unclear for most of the movie, he goes off to college and doesn’t return as he’d promised he would, leaving Kya an emotional wreck. And that’s about the time Chase first enters her life, coming on too strong at first because he thinks she’s a wild, overly sexual girl. He soon finds out a proper wooing is in order, and that’s exactly what he brings with a too-slick charm that makes him somehow appealing and revolting all at once. He keeps her a secret from everyone else, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s a bit of a dirtbag, whom she rejects even as he continues to hound her. Somewhere around here Tate returns, full of regret and begging for forgiveness, but when he realizes that Chase is somehow in the picture, he feels rejected.

Crawdads becomes a full-on soap opera in its final third, both in terms of the relationship and the mystery surrounding Chase’s death. The courtroom scenes are pretty flat, although watching Strathairn is always a treat, and his folksy southern lawyer spin is one of the film’s only true standout performances. Edgar-Jones is also exceedingly good here, but she’s given a flat screenplay from which to work and it dampens her performance—basically, she just stares at nature, good-looking boys, and out into the marsh, looking curious, angry or hurt.

Milton lays out a pretty convincing alibi and timeline that effectively proves that Kya couldn’t have committed a murder (she was out of town, visiting her publisher). But that doesn’t stop the story from adding something of a postscript that is meant to be a big twist but seems like the only solution to the mystery. The filmmakers certainly give us a couple options for killers if Chase was a murder victim, and all of it seems like blatant misdirect. Blatant is a word I’d use to describe a great deal of Where the Crawdads Sing. There are opportunities here to get dark and grimy and edgy, but instead it feels polished and wiped clean, like so many fingerprints after a crime. There are many secrets sunken in the marsh, and this film reveals very few of them. Edger-Jones’ acting kept me locked into this overlong movie, but the rest of the film trudges on into the night like an aimless snipe hunt.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.