Where the Crawdads Sing is a soggy, laughably self-serious mess that isn’t able to calibrate its particular wavelength of melodrama.
Based on the wildly popular 2018 best-selling novel and book club favorite by Delia Owens, the film adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing certainly embraces its source material’s flair for melodrama, serving up a slice of Southern-fried cheese that has been thoroughly coated and breaded in corn-pone bullshit. To be fair, the film takes place in the marshes of North Carolina, but that doesn’t stop the cast from acting like they’ve all signed up for some ill-advised remake of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as lovers are scorned and men are brutish pigs worthy of a few fatal wallops. Director Olivia Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar are certainly under no delusion about the type of movie they are making, consistent in their vision of soap opera theatrics bathed in a golden hour glow that exists solely to entertain middle-aged women uninterested in such frivolities as depth or realism. That this particular escape from reality includes child and spousal abuse seems par for the course in this day and age, where the likes of the Lifetime Network have trained an entire generation to believe that a woman must suffer in order to truly understand and appreciate her agency, and filmmakers perpetuate such dangerous and regressive fallacies quite thoughtlessly. But who has time to consider such things when beautiful people are making googly eyes at one another?
Daisy Edgar-Jones stars as Catherine Clark, better known as Kya, who, as the film opens, is arrested for the murder of beloved local Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), found dead at the base of a tall fire tower. The townspeople automatically assume she did it, because she has lived in the marshes by herself for the past ten years, rarely seen in public, and whose legend with townsfolk as “Marsh Girl” includes glowing eyes and the possibility of being the missing link between ape and human. The idea that the most insulting moniker they can give Kya is “Marsh Girl” tells you everything you need to know about the locals, who apparently missed the memo where Kya’s father (Garret Dillahunt) was an abusive drunk who drove both his wife and four of his five kids away, leaving Kya to fend for herself when he finally picked up and left when she was only ten. The film cuts back and forth between the present-day courtroom trial (set in 1969) and the preceding 15 years, where we learn about Kya’s devastating history with various deplorable men. This includes Tate (Taylor John Smith), a hunky local fisherman who teaches Kya how to read but refuses to sleep with her because, “It would do more damage to you than to me,” ultimately abandoning her for college life even as he promises to come back and see her in the summers. Then there’s the aforementioned Chase, who is embarrassed to be seen with her in public and treats her as a side piece even as he makes empty declarations of love and possible marriage proposals.
The film is certainly sympathetic to Kya’s plight, a young woman entirely willing to open her heart to others who show her even the faintest hint of interest due to the solitude that has consumed her for the past 15 years. “Being alone is a pain whose vastness is so great you can hear echoes,” Kya states at one point, which aptly clues viewers into both the shape of her melancholy and the shade of purple in which this film’s prose traffics. Where the Crawdads Sing is the type of movie where our heroine is dirt-poor and has little access to any sort of amenities — remember, she’s a “Marsh Girl” — but she is also somehow drop-dead gorgeous at all times, eyebrows perfectly manicured, legs cleanly shaven, etc. This makes it all the more laughable that the local yokels constantly refer to her as some kind of monster, even after seeing her, a bit approximately as funny as when Kya explains to Tate the reason why she can’t initially read his love letters, her dialogue somewhere along the lines of, “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” while staring off blankly and slack-jawed into the distance like she’s auditioning for The Flowers of Algernon. The courtroom scenes are equally over the top, where countless accusations and insults are hurled and the jurors and attendees all loudly gasp and murmur, this while David Strathairn does his best Atticus Finch impression as Kya’s kindly lawyer. And that’s not even mentioning the subplot where Kya becomes a world-famous author, whose publisher refers to the murder trial as “nonsense” and says he can’t wait to publish her next book. (To those following the current controversies swirling around the novel’s author, this is possibly the greatest case of inadvertent dramatic irony to ever exist.) Oh, and also, the film ultimately takes place over the course of 80 years. Let that sink in — 80.
Yet even for viewers keyed in to the movie’s particular strain of melodrama, the whole sordid sum might still be too much. At over two hours, the film is a slog-and-a-half, offering a few moments of “Can you believe this shit?” laughs but never enough to consistently or campily delight. It certainly doesn’t help that the film’s politics are so questionable, offering up an ostensible tale of female empowerment that feels like a relic from the very era in which it is set. Those looking for a more guilt-free version of this particular story would be wise to check out Taylor Hackford’s 1995 adaptation of Stephen King’s Dolores Clairborne, of which this particular story feels like a soulless afterimage. One would like to think that Strathairn’s casting here is a knowing nod, as he played the abusive man in Clairborne, but then this is also a film that undercuts any possibility of a good performance from Edgar-Jones, who was so heartbreakingly vulnerable and authentic in the limited series Normal People. None of this is going to stop the film from making $100 million-plus at the box office, but profits don’t change the fact that Where the Crawdads Sing is where authenticity goes to die.