In this day and age where films are regularly more bloated than they need to be, I find it more and more exhilarating to find a film that isn’t afraid to tell its tale economically and entertainingly and then just finish. The new debut feature from Australian filmmakers, The China Brothers, “Crawl” is the perfect example of this. It is lean, mean and packs quite a punch, and its short running time is definitely a positive.
The story of “Crawl” is a simple one. After assassinating the owner of the local garage, “The Croatian” heads to the only bar in town to be paid from the man who hired him. That man is Slim, who also owns the bar, and after hearing that the hit has been successful is only too happy to pay the man who performed the deed. “The Croatian” is one of those quiet, mysterious types. He says very little, but expresses a lot through his eyes (which are ironically often hidden behind the large brim of the hat he always wears), and you are never in any doubt that the man is capable of extreme violence. After receiving his money, the hitman is ready to leave the small town, likely never to return. Meanwhile, a worker at the bar, Marilyn Burns, is nervous and excited at the possibility that tonight may be the night that her boyfriend, Travis, finally pops the question to her. After her shift at the bar, she rushes home to prepare herself and her house for her boyfriend’s arrival. She wants this to be a night that she will never forget. Unluckily for her, her wish is going to become a reality but not in any way she may have dreamed, as circumstances involving Slim’s deal with “The Croatian” as well as a simple car accident, will find Marilyn fighting for her life in the place she feels safest, her home. It suddenly becomes a life and death situation for everyone involved, as a major double-cross is discovered while being in the wrong place at the wrong time changes the fate of everyone.
While the film is not perfect (it actually has a number of flaws) “Crawl” is a seriously good debut feature from director Paul China. During my viewing of the film, I was in no doubt that China was a fan of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers, as well as Roman Polanski. Their influence is felt all over “Crawl” and not in the over-the-top “homage” department either. “Crawl” never feels derivative of these past master’s work, rather China has used his knowledge of these films to expertly craft his own feature. The most impressive thing about “Crawl” is the way China continually builds and expands upon the suspense until the nail biting finale. The way he goes about doing this is all visual, as the majority of the second half of the film is dialogue free, and it is all about the camera work telling the story which is masterful. You are never in any doubt that China knows what he is doing, and his camera work is as accomplished as that you would see from a director who had been working for decades, it is so sharp, it is almost hard to believe that this is his debut feature. Nothing is too flashy, it is just his shot choices and compositions are all so perfect, and when he does do something different, it just adds to the suspense. There is a moment of slow motion used towards the end of the film that is just brilliant, as you really fear for Marilyn’s safety in this moment. These days the use of slow motion is way over-done to the point it has lost its effectiveness, but by only using it in a key sequence here, China shows how powerful the technique can still be.
Something that I find a little frustrating is the fact that “Crawl” is often called “slow” or a “slow burn” type film. This couldn’t be further from the truth; it is just that today’s audience apparently needs something to happen every ten minutes to keep their attention. This is a throwback to the way films were made in the past, simply and economically, and these things do not make a film “slow”.
The performances from the three main actors are pretty good although Georgina Haig stands out in her role as Marilyn. She is outstanding going from the giggly and nervous girl expecting to be proposed to and then becoming the terrified girl who is willing to do anything to survive. I really loved her performance, it just felt so real, and I particularly loved the scenes of her getting the house ready for Travis’s arrival. It doesn’t hurt that Haig is also extremely beautiful. The way that George Shevtsov portrays the villainous “Croatian” is as a very slick, and quiet professional. He says little and doesn’t come across in his manner as very aggressive but there is no doubt that the man has a dark soul, which is brilliantly shown in the final scene of the film, with his wry smile as he knowingly destroys someone’s life (incidentally the final shot of the film is just perfect). The way China has dressed Shevtsov and framed him in his shots, he has created an almost mythic quality to “The Croatian” character. In some ways, he reminds a lot of Anton Chigurh from the Coen Brother’s “No Country For Old Men” (which “Crawl” resembles a lot of at times). He just comes across bigger than he really is in the world. Paul Holmes, who plays Slim Walding, gives an over the top and broad performance that for me, didn’t always work. He had moments when I thought his portrayal worked, but the majority of the time it just fell flat for me.
As impressive as “Crawl” is, I think Paul China still needs to work on his writing, as this was definitely the weak point of the film. Dialogue was far too simple and (again) broad, and it was all stuff we had heard countless times in these sorts of films. Personally, I believe China is smart enough to know his deficiencies, which is why he relies so heavily on the visuals in the second half of the film. In terms of plot, there is one major moment that makes little sense that involves the victim of a road accident, which I don’t want to mention in case I reveal too much about the film.
Just briefly I need to mention the work of Christopher Gordon who provided the music score for “Crawl”. If there is one thing in the film that could be considered derivative of films past it would be the score as it echoes a lot of the work from the great Bernard Herrmann (not to mention a little Pino Donaggio), but do you know what, I couldn’t care less because the music was so effective, it just added to the already amazing level of suspense and tension.
Overall, this is such an impressive first feature by the China Brothers (Benjamin China is credited as producer, although I am not sure if this is like the Coen Brothers where both have had part in all duties, but one takes the directors credit, while the other the producers credit), and I am seriously looking forward to their future work. It is obvious that the understand the thriller / horror genre and are no doubt fans of it themselves (the main female character is named after the main actress in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”). Their build up of suspense is brilliant, and it is so good to see a film rely heavily on the build-up rather than the gore of the pay-off. Do not get me wrong though, as “Crawl” has enough bloody moments in it to satisfy fans too. The other thing I loved was that this was a film that relied more on camera placement and movement rather than special effects. I long for the day filmmakers remember that if you tell your story well, you do not need the spectacular of special effects. It is clear that the China Brothers understand this and behind the strength of their first feature, I hope they have a very long career.