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Where the Crawdads Sing review: a bland murder mystery

For a film that takes such great pains to immerse viewers in the environment of one specific corner of the United States, Where the Crawdads Sing is shockingly bland. Adapted from Delia Owens’ best-selling 2018 novel, the new film explores the life of a young woman who is forced to raise herself in a marsh in North Carolina. The film, which takes place throughout the 1950s and 1960s, spends a considerable amount of time discussing and showcasing the murky wetland that emerges as its protagonist’s unlikely home.

However, Where the Crawdads Sing never truly takes advantage of its backwoods setting. Even when a shocking murder in the film’s central marsh threatens to turn the life of its young heroine upside down, Where the Crawdads Sing remains surprisingly unimaginative, and its refusal to commit to the darker gothic elements of its story renders the film lifeless. Consequently, what could have been a moody and immersive murder mystery instead ends up feeling more like a safe cross between a late-era Nicholas Sparks adaptation and an uninspired, psychologically thin character study.

A suspicious death

Kya Clark sits against a tree in Where the Crawdads Sing.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Where the Crawdads Sing follows Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones from the Hulu series Normal People), a young woman who is placed under arrest for the suspected murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) in the film’s opening prologue. After a kind-hearted lawyer (David Strathairn) subsequently offers to represent her, Kya quickly finds herself in the middle of a trial that has the power to determine her entire future. From that point on, Where the Crawdads Sing adopts a multi-timeline structure, one that allows it to explore Kya’s life leading up to her arrest while frequently cutting back to the events of her present-day trial.

Through the film’s lengthy flashback sequences, we are given glimpses into Kya’s difficult childhood and the years she spent living under the thumb of her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt). After her father unexpectedly abandons her, the film follows Kya as she is forced to learn how to survive on her own in the unforgiving marsh she calls home. Where the Crawdads Sing then picks up with Kya years later when she begins to attract the attention of not only a handsome young man named Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) but also Harris Dickinson’s Chase Andrews, the very man whose death will send her present-day life spiraling into chaos.

Between its central murder, unique marshland setting, and potentially tense courtroom subplot, Where the Crawdads Sing has all the necessary ingredients to be an involving, psychologically dark murder mystery. However, the film itself is oddly lighter, both visually and tonally, than its premise would have you believe. Its approach to violence ends up feeling particularly lacking, with director Olivia Newman willing to depict the various horrific acts that are perpetrated against Kya by the men around her but not the payback that she is justifiably willing to unleash when the need arises.

A difficult life

Kya Clark sits on her bed in Where the Crawdads Sing.
Michele K. Short/Sony Pictures

The film’s strange attitude toward its violence is only made more apparent by its reluctance to truly lean into the darker aspects of its story. The marsh that Edgar-Jones’ Kya calls home is brightly lit throughout most of the film, which robs the environment of its potentially gothic atmosphere. Newman, instead, chooses to shoot Where the Crawdads Sing’s numerous marsh sequences as if the environment had been pulled out of a fairytale, with light streaming in from all directions and flowers blooming everywhere you look. It’s a choice that makes the film’s overall aesthetic feel incongruous with its undeniably grim story.

Lucy Alibar’s flashback-heavy script, meanwhile, succeeds at turning Where the Crawdads Sing into a comprehensive portrait of its protagonist’s life, but it also forces the film to move at an unbearably languid pace. After diving right into the present-day, investigative side of its story, Where the Crawdads Sing goes on to spend most of its runtime in the past, following Edgar-Jones’ Kya as she develops the skills that’ll enable her to live on her own and the relationships that’ll turn her life into an emotionally exhausting mess. Unfortunately, the film’s intense focus on Kya’s past also leads to the courtroom scenes that she shares with Strathairn’s Tom feeling like footnotes in Where the Crawdads Sing’s story.

That especially becomes the case during the film’s second act, which introduces Smith’s Tate and Dickinson’s Chase as well as the fundamentally different romantic relationships that Kya forms with both of them over time. It’s in this section that Where the Crawdads Sing becomes a drawn-out romantic melodrama that, despite Edgar-Jones’ palpable chemistry with both Smith and Dickinson, only serves to further highlight the monotonous nature of the film’s plot.

A disappointing mystery

Michele K. Short/Sony Pictures

The few emotionally affecting moments that Where the Crawdads Sing does deliver all come from Edgar-Jones’ capable performance as Kya. Despite being forced to say multiple lines that, frankly, work better in a book than they do in a film, Edgar-Jones still manages to make Kya’s strength and insecurities feel real. She brings a quiet steadiness to her character that not only adds further authenticity to the film’s characterization of her but also makes it easy to buy into some of the more questionable or difficult decisions that she is forced to make throughout it.

The fact that she manages to do so in a film that so often feels like it is running on autopilot is a testament to Edgar-Jones’ increasingly obvious abilities as a performer. Unlike its lead star though, Where the Crawdads Sing fails to bring the intensity that its story that it so dearly requires. The film doesn’t fully commit to any of the aspects of its plot or setting that could have helped it craft a clearer identity for itself, and its disinterest in Kya’s courtroom experiences only makes everything that happens throughout it feel all the more inconsequential.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING - Official Trailer 2 (HD)

Therefore, while it works as a showcase for Daisy Edgar-Jones, her performance isn’t enough to stop Where the Crawdads Sing from getting lost in the weeds.

Where the Crawdads Sing hits theaters on Friday, July 15.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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