Where the Crawdads Sing, by Albert W. Vogt III

Years ago, before I came back to the Catholic Faith, I recall a controversial image made of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.  The aptly named painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” was done by a young British artist raised on Catholicism named Christopher Ofili.  Upon first inspection, you would see an African looking Mary adorned in a blue robe, the color most associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a brilliant gold background.  If you stopped with your surface observations, you might even say that it was beautiful.  The devil is in the details, pun intended.  The most obvious criticism, and the one I heard about the most at the time, is that a significant portion of the work is done with elephant dung.  This is somewhat understandable given the amount of time that Ofili spent in Nigeria, and pachyderm poop has all manner of common uses.  What is far less acceptable are the number of vaginas that surround the image.  They have been referred to as pornographic.  For me, this is the real feces.  It also makes a telling metaphor for this weekend’s movie, Where the Crawdads Sing, as I hope will become apparent from this review.

It is the discovery of the dead body of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) that starts Where the Crawdads Sing.  A cursory investigation leads the sheriffs to decide that the local outcast derisively known as the “Marsh Girl,” Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), is responsible for his death.  Shortly after her incarceration, retired lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) steps forward to defend Kya in court.  Their first meeting in her cell reveals a closed off and shut down Kya.  Only after a little convincing does Tom get her to open up, and much of the first act is used to explain why she is so distrusting of others.  As a little girl (Jojo Regina) grows up in an abusive household.  Her father (Garret Dillahunt) beats his entire family, particularly her mother (Ahna O’Reilly).  This leads to first mom, then the other siblings, leaving their home in a remote area of the swamp, until it is just dad and Kya.  Mom writes a little later wanting the children, a letter that dad burns before absconding himself.  Now, at roughly ten years old, Kya is by herself.  She decides to go it alone, selling muscles to a local grocer run by Jumpin (Sterling Macer Jr.) and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt).  They are the only ones to show Kya any kindness, and they become surrogate guardians for her.  Years pass, and the late teenaged Kya has adjusted to life on her own, following her dad’s advice to trust few outsiders.  This changes when, while doing her usual swamp wandering, she encounters Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith).  At first, she avoids having anything to do with him, but they begin to bond over a love of the birds of the area.  Soon, a romance develops between the two, with Tate always respecting Kya’s engrained boundaries.  He also teaches her to read and write, and encourages her to publish her incredible drawings of the flora and fauna.  The problem is that Tate is eventually accepted into college, and does not know if he will be coming back to their home town.  Before he leaves, he swears that he will return, and such are Kya’s feelings for him that she believes him.  Hence, you can imagine her heartbreak when he does not come for their pre-arranged Fourth of July rendezvous on a nearby deserted beach.  Eventually, Kya moves on, as does time.  It is six years later when she finds that she is ready to open her heart again, and she meets Chase.  Chase is bolder than Tate in testing Kya’s boundaries.  Yet, he earns her trust by demonstrating that he is apparently willing to pull back when she tells him to do so.  He also tells her that, contrary to what she sees on the rare occasions she is in town, nobody knows him like her. She comes to find out that this works both ways as one of these chance encounters reveals that he is engaged to another woman.  Further complicating the situation is the reappearance of Tate.  Though she is still angry with him for leaving, as everyone else has done in her life, all he asks for is forgiveness.  The person who does not seem to let a situation go is Chase.  Kya tries to do her famous avoiding act, but he eventually finds her and attempts to rape her.  She is able to fight him off, but he keeps coming after her.  This goes on while Kya has managed to get her book published.  Tate convinces her to go meet with her publishers, and it is during her time out of town that Chase is killed.  This, along with a lack of evidence in a number of other areas, are key components to Tom’s defense, and aids in her acquittal.  From here, the film zooms through the last decades of her life, one that she spends with Tate in the swamp.  The last we see of her is as an old lady (Leslie France) being found dead by the aged Tate (Sam Anderson), having just seen a vision of her mother.

There is an important detail I left out in this description of Where the Crawdads Sing’s plot.  My reason for doing so pertains to the poop and porn Mary described in the introduction.  If there is one thing that the film does well is draw you down the primrose logic path of how Chase dies.  I confess that I had it wrong, though the clues for what actually happens are shown to you the entire time, and are pretty obvious.  I was fooled because I was also taken by the beauty of the film. One of my favorite ways of experiencing God is in nature, particularly in quiet places where you can get away from civilization.  Pointedly, it reminded me of times I followed out-of-the-way, skinny streams deep into Florida’s vast swampy areas to places where the only thing you hear is akin to the sounds that would have greeted Adam and Eve.  I also felt for Kya and her struggles.  Though she does swear at one point that she will never be defenseless, for the most part her character stated that she simply wanted to be left alone.  As such, I did not think that she actually killed Chase.  Yet, one of the prominent aspects of the prosecution was Chase’s missing shell necklace, one that Kya made for him and he apparently always wore.  The fact that it is missing when his body is found points to Kya’s guilt.  It is not found again until the end when Tate goes through Kya’s possessions and finds its hiding place.  You might think of Chase as deserving of what he got.  In a sense, I agree with this sentiment.  We do, though, as a society, have a recourse for such acts.  Kya’s defense is that in addition to local society never accepting her (despite her peers acquitting her), sometimes creatures in nature have to kill to defend themselves.  The problem with this thought is that we are not the insects she uses as a metaphor to explain her actions.  Now, the film never shows us what actually happens the night Chase dies.  But it heavily implies that Kya murders Chase.  This is the poop and pornography.  I wanted to like Kya, and the world into which she invites us.  Given her reclusive nature, it is a blessing and a privilege to have such an invitation.  And it all has to be ruined by her being a killer.

The reason I was so taken by the beautiful parts of Where the Crawdads Sing is because of how she describes her life in the swamp.  At one point she says that she had always been content to be a part of the natural sequence.  This is such a great way of looking at Faith.  A healthy, proper relationship with God starts with surrendering to His will.  There are forces that are beyond our control, like the marsh, and God is behind them all.  Kya’s desire to be just one more of the creatures in the kingdom (regardless of how she identifies with them in explaining her actions) is how we should all be disposed towards God.  Further, Kya also speaks to some important character traits that we all have, namely our woundedness.  Throughout the film, she talks about her experiences having created a shell around her that she is reluctant to leave.  At times this is seen as her heart, and others the swamp itself.  She also indicates that her wounds are deeply buried.  Most of them are, for all of us, and the more traumatic the deeper.  This is something which I am not sure she ever confronts.  She apparently carries many secrets with her to the grave.  That is not a recommended course of action, and I am glad to be a Catholic and having the sacrament of reconciliation to help with these moments.

In summation, I do not feel I can recommend Where the Crawdads Sing.  The previews, like looking at the painting discussed at the beginning, can entice you as they did me.  But when you understand the details, it ultimately repulses.  For the most part, Kya is a sympathetic character.  For this reviewer, the fact that she is potentially a murderer detracts from my feelings towards her.  Are we perfect?  Of course not.  At the same time, I want my movies to be idealized.  Also, how great is the swamp, anyway?

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