Where the Crawdads Sing is one of the most talked-about films of 2022, and with good reason. From various sources, I’d heard it was both the best AND the worst film of the year, a gripping murder mystery and a complete non-event where nothing at all happens of note. Of course, it’s better to be talked about than not talked about, and while Olivia Newman’s adaptation of Delia Owens’ book clearly divided opinion, there’s no arguing that Where The Crawdads Sing turned out unexpectedly to be one of 2022 most popular and profitable films, a significant hit for Sony and producer Reese Witherspoon.
There are no singing crawdads, otherwise known as crayfish, in this film aside from metaphorically, but the flora and fauna of the North Carolina marshland are dramatically featured here. From the swamp emerges Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), growing up all alone after her abusive father chases her mother and family away, then abruptly departs himself. Kya is ostracised by the community of (fictional) town Barkley Cove, and when local boy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) falls to his death from a remote fire-tower, Kya is suspect number one. A deliberately fractured narrative creates two time-lines; moving ahead with Kya’s trial as kindly lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) defends Kya in court, and reaching back to the Kya’s past and relationships with various men, Chase, and Tate Walker (John Taylor Smith) as we attempt to get to the bottom of her culpability. Is Kya the murderer, or was she actually a witness to a crime?
Leaving the finance sheet aside, Where The Crawdads Sing gained in notoriety when rumours appeared about the author’s own past; the death of a poacher in Zambia was blamed on her husband, and Owens seems to have re-worked her own story as inspiration for Kya’s journey of self-empowerment. This isn’t a John Grisham courtroom thriller, and the mystery is left rather open-ended in Lucy Alibar’s script. A vague twist ending suggests that Kya was involved in a murder, or is an accessory to one, and parallels to Owen’s own situation are disturbing.
Wrapped up in a bow with a Taylor Swift song over the final credits, Where The Crawdads Sing is a very glossy showcase for beautiful performers and locations; hard-scrabble poverty hasn’t looked so enviable since The Color Purple, and Kya often looks more like a public-school princess awaiting her prom than a feral swamp-child. Chase and Tate regularly whip off their shirts, Twilight style, to reveal remarkable hot bods, and Crawdads eventually settles for a fairly conventional Southern Gothic narrative with several plot points posted missing but a strong self-empowerment education message. It’s certainly a well-produced and directed bit of counter-programming, but discovering that neither star nor director were in the loop with regards to Owens’ history suggests some subterfuge at work. Crawdads makes a strong case as to why it might be understandable for an abused girl to kill her tormentor, or not; it’s not quite the same thing when you’re fleeing the country due to avoid answering questions about the unexplained death of a poacher on your land.