The wilderness of the American deep south is impenetrable. Literally and metaphorically.
Where the crawdads sing starts with a sweeping shot of North Carolina’s marshes as it follows a CGI stork up on high, over the thick foliage of the swamp. The romantic score adds an epic undertone, but close your eyes and all you hear is the continuing shrill of cicadas and the hoots of exotic birds.
The legwork for creating the atmosphere is half done just by filming a bald cypress on a foggy afternoon. You can feel the stuffy, muggy sweatiness before even a word is uttered. So it’s strange how this film failed to capitalise on the Southern Gothic flavour – surprising even to those familiar with the story.
Based on the renowned best-seller by Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing is the kind of prestige novel built to conquer every suburban book club. It has everything – a lurid setting, romance, crime, a solid main protagonist, a sprinkle of white guilt, a twist at the end and the kind of safe social commentary that makes a reader feel superior.
The story is framed around the murder our protagonist Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is accused of. She’s ostracised by the town for having lived in isolation since childhood when her father died and subsequently bullied by almost everyone around her.
They call her Marsh Girl and scoff at her appearance, and from the outset, it’s evident she’s not due a fair trial. There are some good souls around, namely the nice African-American couple who own the local shop, the kind-hearted lawyer who believes Kya should have a fair trial (David Strathairn), and Tate (Taylor John Smith), the friendly neighbour kid who grows up to become the generic American hunk and teaches Kya the ways of the world.
The idea of centring the narrative around the murder is a departure from the novel, but it makes sense for this medium. It keeps an eye on the prize and justifies each episodic chapter as another clue to the conclusion. What the director Olivia Newman and her writing partner Lucy Alibar understand is how the plot elements shape our sympathy for Kya without relying on any particular quirks from the character.
The problem with this approach is that it removes the weight of the setting from the character’s personality and whitewashes it for the audience, out of concern that they might side with the bullies. Portraying and celebrating Kya’s differences shouldn’t require that much confidence, but the filmmakers come across as worried someone would miss the point.
The film’s Kya is clean and well presented, eloquent and ingenuous. Many may comment unfavourably on her appearance, but the reason for this isn’t evident – in the film she’s graceful and tidy as if her traumatic childhood had no impact on her psychological development. As if all those years in the company of birds and insects haven’t impaired her social skills.
Why is this film set in the marshes? The book’s second half turns into a tense crime procedural that contrasts with the tame Southern Gothic atmosphere of the first half. The film has none of that. Newman, too timid to alienate the audience with any iota of difference, shoots the scenes with the same flair as a Nicholas Sparks adaptation or a Hallmark channel production.
It’s a gross misuse of Alibar’s skills as a writer, whose brilliant Beasts of the Southern Wild I still consider a high standard of Southern fantasy-realism. That film’s colourful vitality was infused so profoundly into its setting that one couldn’t exist without the other. In Crawdads, nothing justifies the garish background. Even the actors don’t indulge us by speaking in the appropriate accent, with the exception of the always reliable David Strathairn.
Everything in this film is so safe, so secure, and so eager to please that it loses what made the original special in the first place. It’s not the generic procedural crime drama, the by-the-numbers romance, or even the borderline patronising elitism. It’s the atmosphere that makes the tale stand out. Take it out, and the crawdads don’t sing, they screech.