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In Review: 'Where the Crawdads Sing,' 'Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song'
Delia Owens' bestselling romance/courtroom drama/whodunit hybrid gets a suitably glossy adaptation and a documentary looks at Leonard Cohen through his oft-covered hymn.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Dir. Olivia Newman
[In the tradition of “Spoiler Space” at The A.V. Club and “The Reveal” at The Dissolve, I’m including a section at the end of this newsletter to talk about the end of this movie. Since we don’t have a separate page to send you, please be warned not to read it if you don’t want the ending spoiled for you. —S.T.]
In Barkley Cove, North Carolina, the gossips spread rumors and tall tales about the “Marsh Girl,” a young woman who’s been living alone for years in the wetlands outside town, occasionally surfacing to barter mussels for groceries, but mostly keeping to herself. Her wild child visage, stoked by her natural beauty, conjures the reputation of a feral temptress, promising curious men a taste of the untamed verdancy of nature. Add a love triangle and a possible murder to this equation, and Where the Crawdads Sing, an adaptation of Delia Owens’ best-selling novel, sounds like a pulpy Southern gothic, full of sex and violence and dark secrets buried in the swampy muck. Please pass the dog-eared paperback.
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Only Where the Crawdads Sing is not that kind of story, and the heroine is not that kind of marsh girl. Perhaps that’s the key to the book’s success: It’s classed-up dimestore filth, with the sheen of respectability that keeps readers from feeling scandalized at beaches and airports. Other than an early scene where the girl tries to go to school in bare feet, little in the film even suggests that living deep in the sticky bogs of North Carolina might cake her in sweat and dirt, or ruffle the flower-printed dresses she gets from a church donation box. As played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, a fine actress best known for her work on the TV series Normal People, Kya looks so polished and carries herself with such modest grace that her ostracism from Barkley Cove is inexplicable. Is she really so different?
A glossy romance, a courtroom drama, and a whodunit all rolled into one, Where the Crawdads Sing starts in 1969 with the discovery of a dead body under an old fire tower overlooking the marsh. When the police determine, with scant evidence, that Chase (Harris Dickinson) was pushed through a grate 63 feet above, suspicion naturally falls on Kya, who he’d been seeing in secret. One of Kya’s few advocates in town, a retired attorney named Tom (David Straithairn), offers to defend her at trial, but he needs to hear her side of the story first. That opens up extensive flashbacks to Kya’s childhood and beyond, starting with the trauma of an abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) and the subsequent departure of her mother and siblings. (The procession of family members leaving the house as she watches outside, each bruised or bloodied in some way, is one of several moments of unintentional comedy.)
As her father leaves, making her abandonment total, Kya quietly ekes out a living on her own, filling her time with observational sketches of birds, seashells, and other natural phenomena. She eventually attracts the interest of a handsome fellow nature-lover, Tate (Taylor John Smith), who gains her trust and teaches her to read, only to leave for college in Chapel Hill. That heartbreak leads to a rougher courtship with Chase, who’s also handsome and charming, but a little aggressive in pressing for her affections.
The state’s case against Kya is ludicrously thin. To the prosecutors, like the townspeople, Kya seems like an untamed animal capable of killing, but there’s no evidence that Chase was even murdered, other than the red fibers from a hat that could have been on his clothes long before the incident, when the two were lovers. But the legal drama turns out mostly to be a framing device for a twisty Nicholas Sparks-style Southern romance, albeit one more secular than Sparks and slightly less dependent on wild plot machinations. Kya represents a self-made, independent woman who’s willing her way through trauma, but love turns her into a generic belle, torn over which suitor deserves her hand. The PG-13-ness of Where the Crawdads Sing buffs every rough edge off this story—the abuse, the abandonment, the betrayal, the sex, and even the alleged murder. It would be better off as trash. — Scott Tobias
Where the Crawdads Sing opens at theaters everywhere on Friday.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
Dir. Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine
Leonard Cohen was always an unlikely star. The son of a well-off family in Montreal, Cohen was a poet and a novelist before he began pursuing a career as a singer and songwriter on the far side of thirty in the mid-’60s. He had a voice that took getting used to and trafficked in lyrical, elusive songs about sex, God, and alienation. A cult favorite, a songwriter’s songwriter: these were the fates that seemed to await him. Until, that is, a song from an early-’80s album Cohen’s U.S. label declined to release became an international sensation thanks to its inclusion in Shrek.
The story’s more complicated than that, of course. It’s rooted in Cohen’s upbringing as an Orthodox Jew and winds its way past Phil Spector and the New York club Sin-é, where the song became a fixture in the set of Jeff Buckley. Then it keeps winding, through Cohen’s later career as a hardworking touring musician at the end of his seventies, when financial mismanagement left him with no money for retirement.
Drawing from Alan Light’s 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah," Daniel Geller and Danya Goldfine’s graceful, briskly paced film traces seemingly every step of the “Hallelujah” journey, using it to reflect on Cohen’s life and career by talking to those who knew him and the artists he inspired. In some ways, by the film’s reckoning, the song mirrors its creator, a man who is spoken of even by those closest to him with a mix of reverence, affection, and bafflement, one capable of reappearing in collaborators’ lives after years without communication or disappearing to a Zen retreat for most of the ’90s. Cohen recorded “Hallelujah” in 1984 but began performing it with different lyrics in the early ’90s, drawing from a notebook filled with one possible verse after another. How many? In an archival interview, Cohen claims even he doesn’t know. He remained a mystery even to himself. —Keith Phipps
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is in select theaters now and expanding across the country.
Where the Crawdads Sing: The Big Reveal
[Final warning: If you don’t want the end of this movie spoiled for you, stop reading. There’s nothing following this in the newsletter.]
The ending of the film is quietly ridiculous. As I wrote above, the state has a thin case against Kya. The hat fibers are the only physical evidence they have against her. The rest is just a motive and the town’s long-held prejudices against the "Marsh Girl.” In fact, she has a strong alibi, as she took a bus to Greensboro the morning of the alleged murder to meet with a book publisher and was there again the following morning for breakfast. So in order to commit the crime, she would have to disguise her identity, take the bus back to Barkley Cove late at night, convince her ex-boyfriend to meet her at the fire tower, lure him up the stairs (for the stunning bird’s-eye-view of total darkness), and overpower him enough to push him through an open grate.
Well, guess what? That’s apparently what she did! After Kya wins at trial, the film chronicles the happy life she and Tate build for themselves in her old home in the marsh, which her publishing career (and his career as a biologist) has allowed her to appoint with tasteful furnishings and electricity. The two grow old together and Kya is the first one to die, passing away peacefully on the same modest fishing boat with the outboard motor that she’d been using since childhood. Only then does Old Tate discover a sketchbook in which she confesses to the murder, which she justifies by citing the natural need and right for an animal to fend off a predator. Chase did sexually assault her, and he reacted to their breakup by trashing her house, so she’s not out of line in seeing him as a threat. But ending the film with Kya as a heroic killer is an odd bit of framing, not least because in real life, Delia Owens is still wanted for questioning over the 1995 killing of a poacher in Zambia. Did she pull a Catherine Tramell here?