Where The Crawdads Sing Review: A Sordid Murder Trial Descends Into A Soapy Snooze

A body in a North Carolina marsh. A beautiful outcast. A sensationalist murder trial. "Where the Crawdads Sing" has all the elements for a sordid Southern gothic thriller, but the thrills stop with the premise (though not with the, frankly, more scandalous behind-the-scenes story).

Instead, the mystery drama directed by Olivia Newman from a screenplay written by Lucy Alibar, is more interested in the soapy love triangle that protagonist Catherine "Kya" Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) finds herself embroiled in, which is par for the course for a movie produced by Reese Witherspoon and based on a bestselling beach read. In fact, most of "Where the Crawdads Sing" is pretty much par for the course — with few twists or surprises to be found in the lushly directed adaptation. All the same, thanks to a guileless and steely central performance by Edgar-Jones, "Where the Crawdads Sing" manages to find some harmony between its melodramatic swings and its slow-building mystery.

Survival of the fittest

Based on the novel by Delia Owens (more on her later), "Where the Crawdads Sing" is set in 1960s North Carolina, in a small town abutting a marsh that houses all sorts of fascinating insects and animals. But only Kya Clark knows about the marsh's beautiful, and deadly, secrets — having lived there all her life in relative isolation, earning her the nickname "Marsh Girl," by the town's wary residents.

Kya once lived happily in the marsh with her family but was slowly abandoned by them after her mother and siblings fled her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt, boozing it up in a thankless role). One day, her father disappears too, and young Kya (Jojo Regina, appropriately cute and spunky) is left to fend for herself. Kya gets by on the mussels that she digs out of the marsh and sells in town, along with the kindness of a local Black shop-owning couple (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer, Jr., trying their best to imbue personality to borderline stereotypical roles) who are the only ones who clue in on Kya's predicament. 

The rest of the town shuns and harasses her — except for Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith, sweet and a little insipid), a handsome son of a shrimper who romances her with feathers and seeds, before teaching her to read and write. But when Tate leaves her behind for college, Kya falls into the arms of equally handsome — and eerily similar-looking — football jock Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, smarmy and also a little insipid), who later ends up the dead body in the marsh. Who could have killed him?! Certainly not Kya, who is so pretty and so misunderstood.

Let's cut to the chase: the most interesting part of "Where the Crawdads Sing" is not the Reese Witherspoon endorsement, nor its beautiful cast, nor the new Taylor Swift song that plays over the credits. It's the insane backstory of book author Delia Owens, who herself is still wanted in Zambia for questioning in a murder. Technically Owens is more adjacent to the murder of a poacher that was accidentally televised in 1996, but the writer is steeped in enough controversy that it earned "Where the Crawdads Sing" a few raised eyebrows, especially after the book shot to the top of the bestsellers lists in 2020. But does the film live up to the scandal that may have partially inspired it? Not really.

Crawdaddy issues

Despite the sordid stories surrounding its author and despite the sensationalist murder trial which makes up the bulk of its narrative, "Where the Crawdads Sing" is pretty banal. Its attempts at social commentary comes up short, while its heartstring-tugging is half-assed. The bildungsroman beats are promising before it gives way to the soapy love triangle that feels like a Nicholas Sparks reject. The saving graces are Edgar-Jones and David Straithairn, the latter of whom gives a warm, folksy performance as Kya's lawyer and lone sympathetic ear during the trial that seems like it's all but convicted her for murder based on evidence that is clearly circumstantial.

But of all the female-led murder mysteries that have come out in the wake of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl," "Where the Crawdads Sing" falls somewhere in the middle. Not as trashy as your "Woman in the Windows" nor as irritating as "The Girl on the Train," "Where the Crawdads Sing" makes a glossy romance out of a murky murder mystery. Newman giving us a hazy, sun-dappled portrait of the North Carolina marshes, while Edgar-Jones and the rest of the runway-ready cast don't show a drop of sweat despite the presumably sweltering heat. The film is a self-serious, but consciously aesthetically pleasing, adaptation of a, frankly, silly soap opera. It doesn't rock the boat, but it doesn't plunge into the depths of womanhood, poverty, and classism as much as it thinks it does.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10