There are people who are going to undoubtedly love the new film Where the Crawdads Sing, the gripping murder thriller that hit theaters this weekend. I was not one of them.
Sure, the book it’s based on is incredibly popular. Sure, lead Daisy Edgar-Jones is spellbinding. Sure, the Reese Witherspoon of it all is irresistible. (The Oscar-winner produced the film under her Hello Sunshine banner.) But no matter how juicy the mystery at the center of the story got — and it gets fairly intense — I couldn’t shake my discomfort over scandalous reports about Delia Owens, who wrote the book and is wanted for questioning in an actual murder. Nor could I get past the uncomfortable, somewhat gross relationship at the center of the film.
That romance in Where the Crawdads Sing hinges on the fact that Tate (Taylor John Smith) —a smart, kind, handsome young boy — teaches Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) how to read and write. There are obvious scenes of a savior complex with Tate, who finds their educational dynamic titillating in a way that I found really off-putting. Though their sex scenes are steamy and they have great chemistry, there’s little reason for Tate to fall in love with the wild woman of the marsh. She has no personality, other than being gorgeous, broken, and needing his help.
It’s impossible to empathize with this couple when this man is fetishizing infantilism. Similar to Stranger Things‘Mike and El (who can’t communicate with humans in the first season of the series), I felt agitated watching a man carve out a whole human life for his woman — seemingly just so he could get in her pants. Or because he was “in love.” But how can you be in love with someone who can barely communicate with you? It’s a flu with the movie I never got past.
But it’s not just Tate helping Kya in Where the Crawdads Sing—A whole squadron of Barkley Cove residents rally around her. At a young age, her family abandons her, leaving her with an abusive father (Garret Dillahunt), though it’s not very long before he’s left her, too. Now, she’s alone, fending for herself in the Carolina marshes, selling mussels to get by.
When we first meet her at the beginning of Where the Crawdads Sing, she’s being arrested for murder. We don’t know if she’s committed the crime. At that mystery core, Where the Crawdads Sing does thoroughly entertain. It’s no wonder the book became so popular. But as thrilling as it is, it’s littered with problematic snags.
Let’s start with Kya, the chief issue with the film. We are expected to empathize with Kya because she has, from a very young age, “fended for herself” —but this just isn’t true. Kya fends for herself by relying on those around her who think she’s cute and beautiful. The local store owners, Mabel and Jumpin ‘(Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr.), keep her alive by offering her shoes, clothes, and food in exchange for half-full sacks of mussels.
Then there’s the murder case. One of Kya’s abusive ex-lovers is found dead at the foot of the town’s watch tower, possibly from a fatal push. We don’t know if she committed the crime, but Kya seemingly has no chance of winning this. His shell necklace, the one she made for him, is gone. She does have an alibi, but that doesn’t keep the town from gossiping with suspicion.
Most of the town has always hated her — except for the select handful that keep her alive—and her DNA was found on the murder victim. Still, a trusty old lawyer (a charming David Strathairn, who I want to be my grandfather now) picks up her case. Kya doesn’t do anything. She’s somewhat grateful, but not enough. Then, there’s the weird situation with Tate, her half-teacher, half-lover.
The world of Barkley Cove revolves around Kya, be it loathing her or loving her. Maybe I am butting up against the whole point of the story — to look out for one another, no matter our backgrounds, no matter our differences — by slamming the girl, but it’s not her fault. It’s the fault of the story, which tries to portray her as noble and strong, when she does, in fact, need a lot of help.
It is also the fault of Delia Owens, the author of the original book. A lot of folks read the original novel when it was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and haven’t heard about the murder that may have influenced the novel. No, Delia Owens is not wanted for murder. But she is wanted for questioning in a 1990 murder case in Zambia.
A Slate article released as the Where the Crawdads Sing novel skyrocketed in popularity in 2019 details the murder to which Owens’ name has been attached. In 1990, the Slate article recounts, the author’s husband, Mark Owens, may have been responsible for murdering a poacher, alongside her stepson. The murder was covered up. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities the film — in which, for years, a murder is covered up — has with this case.
But Witherspoon selected the novel for a reason. (I’m curious if the pair still speak, a question I would’ve posed had Owens showed up to the Q + AI attended and she ditched. We got free popcorn and Where the Crawdads Sing coloring books instead.) The story is gripping, incredibly cinematic, and actually fun to watch. I felt kind of bad clenching the seat next to me: I had qualms because I understood the unsavory background behind the film, but I was still engrossed in the story.
Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya has a difficult job, playing a complicated, enigmatic character across several years of her life. Though it feels impossible to empathize with her, Edgar-Jones pulls off a survivor character study as good as Tom Hanks in Castaway or Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane. If there’s anything to take away from this deeply troubled film, it’s that Edgar-Jones was made to be a movie star. Cast her in everything.
But we didn’t already learn this from Normal People? If the point of seeing Where the Crawdads Sing is to watch a spellbinding Edgar-Jones, just stay home and rewatch the Sally Rooney saga instead. Sure, the story is riveting, but it’s as good a mystery film as any other. Read the Wikipedia summary, and then read everything about Delia Owens. There’s absolutely no reason to give your money to Where the Crawdads Sing.