Review of Where the Crawdads Sing: The Murder Mystery hits a lot of miss notes with its icky romances and mellow eco overtones

Where the Crawdads Sing – 15A, 125 minutes

first things first. Crayfish are crayfish, an elusive mini-lobster once common in North Carolina swamps. Do they sing? I suspect it’s a poetic metaphor, something this film is positively inundated with. Directed by Olivia Newman, produced by Reese Witherspoon, Where the Crawdads sing is based on the novel by Delia Owens, an American publishing phenomenon that has sold 12 million copies to date.

As this is Owens’ first novel, and she wrote it in her 70s, the book’s success would be a feel-good story were it not for the dark shadow cast by his extended family’s conservation exploits in Africa, which allegedly involved a shoot-to-kill policy towards poachers. But never mind about that, or any other fashionable issue like domestic violence, racism, or societal inequity in the old south, because it’s fantasy, silly melodrama with overtones fluffy ecological.

Butterflies flutter and CGI herons swoop as we enter the marshes of Barkley Cove, circa 1969, but all is not well in the world of man. A body has been found, identified as a former high school football star Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), titled ass and young townsman who was discovered with his head collapsed at a crime scene devoid of clues. That doesn’t stop local cops from blaming the murder on Katherine “Kya” Clarke (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a wild young woman who lives alone in the swamps and is despised and feared by the townspeople.

The “swamp girl” is hunted down, imprisoned, and tried with what appears to be the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Retired attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) smells a rat and offers to defend her. When he shows kindness to Kya, she opens up and tells him her amazing story.

The youngest of five siblings, Kya is raised in a swamp cabin and lives in fear of her violent and unpredictable father (Garret Dillahunt). When the girl is only six years old, her mother leaves, followed quickly by her older siblings. And by the time she turns 10, Kya has been completely abandoned.

Forced to fend for herself, she learns to harvest mussels at a nearby beach and sells them to Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.), a nice African American who runs a gas station and convenience store. He and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt) take Kya under their wing, but the girl grows up uneducated and wild, unaware of social norms. And when she becomes lissom and a teenager, her problems with men begin.

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Daisy Edgar-Jones in Where the Crawdads Sing

Daisy Edgar-Jones in Where the Crawdads Sing

Local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith) is a force for good first. After spotting Kya in the swamps, he teaches her to read and write, and marvels at her knowledge of nature, her talents as an artist. But Kya has trust issues, which are compounded when Tate leaves for college and abandons her to the lustful gaze of Chase Andrews, a chippy monomaniac.

Watching Where the Crawdads sing, I remembered those fruity adaptations of John Grisham that were popular in the 1990s, prodigious thrillers with standard plots and false social consciences. It’s like those only slower and, after a relatively component opening sequence and a whirlwind tour of childhood from Kya to Dickens, the film gets bogged down in its variously icky romances, leaving the whole trial storyline to manage all alone.

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It’s, in a sense, a harmless story, and the late “twist” isn’t exactly mind-blowing. He lies, like everything else in this limp, crushed film, on the surface, gliding along the smooth waters of the swamp and peering at nothing closely. So it’s something close to a miracle that Daisy Edgar-Jones imbues her ultra-thin persona with visible depth and soul. Without saying anything, she manages to allude to the pain of growing up despised and outside of everything.

Then again, everyone in this movie looks better when they’re not saying anything.

Rating: Two stars

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