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Review: “Where the Crawdads Sing” misses the murder-mystery mark

Even a Taylor Swift original is not enough to salvage the bestselling novel turned YA-esque feature film.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

“Where the Crawdads Sing”, based on Delia Owens’ novel of the same name, follows Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as she stands trial in 1969 for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a plot that’s troublingly parallel to the author’s own life. Directed by Olivia Newman, the film features a beautiful Deep South backdrop and a series of unfulfilling performances.

Set in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina in the fictional town of Barkley Cove, the film jumps between present day and past as Kya’s life story is intertwined with the trial. As readers may recall, the plot-jumping in the book was at times confusing and choppy. Screenwriter Lucy Alibar had a chance to smooth the story out in this regard — but she didn’t. Scenes cut from present to past at random points, constantly disrupting the flow of the plot.

Kya is Barkley Cove’s resident outcast, dubbed “the marsh girl” by everyone around her. We’re led to believe that she somehow managed to raise herself in a shack with no electricity or running water after being abandoned by her family. Throughout the film, it’s evident that Edgar-Jones is the driving force here.

Edgar-Jones, Hollywood’s latest “it” girl, has been rising quickly since her role in another novel adaptation, “Normal People.” In “Crawdads,” Edgar-Jones plays Kya with a realistic dose of vulnerability and shyness that adds much-needed creedence to her character’s unconvincing backstory. However, her consistent narration feels less like a necessary plot device and more like a forced way to incorporate Owens’ dialogue straight from the book.

Much of the film’s two-hour runtime focuses on the whirlwind romances Kya finds herself entangled within. The first is with Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), the dreamy nature-lover whose initial interest in Kya likely stems from a lingering childhood curiosity. Like many of the other characters, Tate lacks substance beyond some moments of brief and passionate chemistry on display with Kya. Chase Andrews, the town’s star quarterback and aforementioned murder victim, is Kya’s other main beau. Chase pursues Kya with dry intimacy and promises of marriage that anyone with a heartbeat knows he won’t be keeping. Dickinson, fresh off of the Cannes-winning dark comedy “Triangle of Sadness,” disappointingly plays Chase like justinlt23 on TikTok: a stereotypically pushy frat bro.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” shines strongest in two specific settings: within the walls of the courtroom and amid the Spanish moss of the marsh. Both environments highlight Edgar-Jones’ consistency and a strong supporting performance from David Strathairn as lawyer Tom Milton. The two engage in powerful dialogue as Tom defends “the marsh girl” to the Barkley Cove jury and help highlight Kya’s intricate relationship with the nature surrounding her.

Perhaps “Where the Crawdads Sing” may have had better success with a cast of further fleshed-out characters. Maybe it was doomed from the beginning. Novel adaptations have a track record and this one certainly seems intent on catering to a particular wine-drinking, book-clubbing audience, as one could assume after learning of Reese Witherspoon’s production credit. Think of the same murder-mystery loving crowd that “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere” targeted. Taylor Swift even wrote an original song for the film, for God’s sake.

In his 2017 review of “Big Little Lies,” The New York Times television critic Mike Hale was one of a few writers who observed a slew of clichés and well-trodden summer murder mystery tropes in that relaxed female-led drama. In the years since, Witherspoon has either simply ignored such criticisms or she has found a more valuable goal in her comfortable production formula.

Regardless, those in the mood to find themselves fantasizing about what lies “way out yonder, where the crawdads sing” and yearning for a Nicholas Sparks-like drama might just find themselves satisfied.

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