For a time in the late 90s and early 00s, perhaps the defining era in my transition from a boy who liked films to a fully-fledged film obsessive, I was a devotee of independent cinema over any other kind. I didn’t care what genre it fell into or who directed it; as long as it was cheaply made and a little bit quirky then I was there with my bucket of popcorn (although outside of the world of cinematic metaphor it was more likely a bottle of red wine). While this helped me discover many genuinely brilliant films that I still love to this day, my undiscerning attitude towards all things indie lead me to rave about some films that I would now probably find self-conscious at best and downright feeble at worst. But my love for indie cinema stuck and there’s still something exciting about discovering an underground gem that stirs something different inside me from the thrill of seeing an established classic for the first time or riding the adrenalin rush of a blockbuster group experience.
While watching Crawl, the debut feature of brothers Ben and Paul China, I was immediately transported back to my days of cinematically indiscriminating teenage joy. It’s safe to say that the younger me would have absolutely loved Crawl. From its small scale to its simple but slightly off-kilter plotting and unusual characters, Crawl features everything that spoke to me about the indies during those socially awkward years. I so enjoyed reliving these feelings that I could easily have allowed myself to overrate this appealing but flawed little film. Fortunately for what I laughingly call my critical integrity, I watched Crawl shortly after I had moved house and was temporarily without an internet connection. This meant I could not post my review for a few weeks and, consequently, was able to assess Crawl properly, without letting nostalgic emotional triggers muddy the waters.
Taking all this into account, Crawl is still a good film but it’s not a great one. The major problem with the film is the China brothers’ determination to pay excessive homage to the Coen brothers, a reference point that only serves to highlight the shortcomings of their own work. The Coen brothers were veritable film gods to me during my indie phase and they remain among my favourite directors to this day. The China brothers share my feelings about the Coens and have said so in practically every interview relating to Crawl. In particular, they cite an appreciation of the Coen’s masterful debut Blood Simple, a landmark of indie cinema and a film noir classic. In its settings, style, simple plotting and intended tone, Crawl resembles Blood Simple to an uncomfortable degree (one image of a crawling, would-be corpse seems to be cut and pasted from the earlier film) but, crucially, it never comes close to touching it in quality. To make matters worse, the China brothers, whether consciously or not, drop in several more visual references to other better Coen brothers films throughout. From the opening No Country for Old Men style confrontation through to a climactic Fargo axe attack, the Coen allusions are never far away and, rather than encourage knowing smiles they will likely make most viewers wish they were watching the films being referenced.
But if the China brothers’ main crime is a love of the Coen brothers then it’s an indiscretion that’s easy to forgive. And if the references are somewhat distracting during moments when we should be emotionally invested, the China brothers also show that, at their best, they can use Coen-esque tools to fine effect. One of the most successful elements of Crawl is its understated semi-comic tone. One of its central characters, a Croatian hitman, manages to seem both powerfully in control and haplessly befuddled at the same time. An almost silent figure, he is memorably played by George Shevtsov, who shows his frustrations and thought-processes through his expressive, hangdog face. Less subtle but no less entertaining is Paul Holmes as the seedy, sweaty bar owner Slim, a sexually-deviant lowlife who could have wandered in from a David Lynch directed episode of Neighbours. Sadly, the third member of Crawl’s main cast, Georgina Haig as Marilyn Burns, is given little to work with. Ostensibly the heroine, Marilyn is a bland prop who mostly wanders wide-eyed around her house waiting to be jumped out on, like so many horror victims before her.
It’s a shame the China brothers use Marilyn so ineffectively because their use of other props is amusing and gives Crawl a hint of dark farce. The movement of a ring, a bag of drugs and (most amusingly) a chocolate cake from place to place recalls the similar use in Blood Simple of a lighter, a gun and some fish, only this time the China brothers have appropriated the technique without distractingly evoking the source. The final image of Crawl does likewise, remaining one of the film’s most powerful moments. Blood Simple had one of the most memorable climaxes in all of cinema but Crawl reproduces this sense of devilish closure on a modest scale that befits its simplicity.
While a part of me wishes I could send it back through time anonymously to my teenage self, a greater part of me is glad to have had the opportunity to watch Crawl without a naïve determination to love it just for its humble origins, because it’s worth discovering for more than that. Ultimately, Crawl is an uncomplicatedly pleasurable watch which hints at better things to come from the China brothers, provided they can get out from under the shadow of their influences.