Dave Courtney’s review published on Letterboxd:
My first thought was, this is destined to be maligned by critics and embraced by audiences. Sure enough this appears to be the sentiment after browsing the aggregated scores.
It waa also pretty easy to note much of the predisposition of a certain type of critic agianst the beloved source material and author, so it's likely it never even had a chance to overcome the label of melodrama, which I think would be misplaced.
Now, I did not read the book. I was aware there was controversy with the author but I was only superficially aware of what that was. Thus finally knowing the story and having the chance to parlay that over top of the controversy I can definitely say I have some thoughts. But beyond that, some observations on the film itself-
It's gorgeously shot, befitting a film that wants to highlight the natural world. It's slower paced than I thought it might be, undercutting accusations of or potential for melodramatic tendencies. There are two essential layers to the story; the courtroom drama that follows the mystery of a murder case involving our main character (a young woman known as the "marsh girl"), and a romance between the marsh girl and a man from the town. Forming the subtext for these two main storybeats are the facts of her recluse existence, including her family upbringing, her love of nature and her artistic passion, and the particular context of the Louisiana setting and the demonizing of the other.
That is actually a lot of subtext to explore in its own right and even at a runtime of close to 2 and a half hours the film still felt like it was rushing through certain portions of the story. This felt especially true for setting up the family dynamics. We don't get near enough time with those characters and they become important later on in the story.
Despite a bit of stumbling on that front though, what the film was able to take advantage of was a demonstrable commitment to holding the story back when it could easily have rushed forward. It is here that we are able to really get to know the main character as she navigates different relationships and different moments in her life. The film does a good job of allowing us to see and feel the world she percieves and experiences.
Thematically the film also presents a lot, some ideas getting fleshed out more than others. The "crawdads", for example, are intentional imagery that surfaces here and there at transitional points in the story, but but for the way it gets clearly articulated near the beginning of the film as a place of "safety and security", the film I think needed to do more in attaching that to the different things she faces in the film. I know how it plays through as a working theme, but it wasn't present enough for me to really attach the imagery to the experiences in my mind. It was easy to simply forget the imagery was even there.
The whole outcast motif I felt worked better, and when this aspect of her character emerges later on in the film as an important point for understanding who she is it feels earned. Less so on the front of her relationship with her mother. It's not just that we don't get enough of that, it's that the film goes out of its way to establish that relationship as an important theme but fails to really play it through. When it emerges at the end it doesn't feel earned.
The biggest thematic point on the film however does play straight into the controversy, which would be pertinant to address as a way of making sense of how it fits into the larger picture. If you are unaware the controversy surrounds the author of the book and her association with a murder of a poacher abusing the natural world. She hasn't been implicated but one of her family members has been, and she herself has been banned from the country where the murder happened for failing to respond to demands for questioning. Now add in to that her outspoken stance on conservation of nature and animals and it's pretty difficult to ignore the overlap between the real life story and the fictional one.
This only becomes more stated once the film clearly outlines it's thoughts on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. I suspect, and certainly can note where this happened in a number of reviews, a certain segment of critics being offended by the film's central position. Let's just say it sets humanity in relationship to nature in ways that will unsettle some modern sensibilities. Here is the thing though- the question the story poses is an honest one, and the conclusion it draws a rational one. If it makes some people uncomfortable it might be that they are ignoring certain implications of a naturalist philosophy, which many people hold to without even realizing it. Such a philosophy raises certain tensions within the realm of nature that challenge strictly humaniat assumptions. These are tensions that all rational viewpoints need to wrestle with in their own way, and I certainly don't think it's the fault of the filmmaker for leaning into some of the logical outcomes of its premise. I think it just shows the willful ignorance of certain reviewers when it comes to sweeping the necessary tensions under the rug. They are easier to ignore than to face head on.
Now, I do have my way of working through the tension according to my working assumptions that lead me to dfirermt conclusions than the author, and thus the film as a faithful adaptation (from what I hear), but I appreciated the way the film brings the questions to light and imagines them playing out in particular ways, especially given the main characters experiences of the world and her struggle just to survive. It can be a jumping off point into some rich discussion, and I think the film presents this with enough clarity and honesty to ensure that different audience members can share this opportunity to participate in such discussion. For me it was a chance to dialogue with my wife, a big fan of the book and the person I saw the film with. And that, in my mind, speaks to the strength of the film overall.