The killer alligator picture Crawl is maybe the least Alexandre Aja-esque film that Alexandre Aja has directed thus far, which I imagine is even a good thing for some people. The filmmaker's body of work, to date, has been one of extreme violence and gore, with highlights including the 2003 New French Extremity barnburner High Tension, a most potent and upsetting thing; the 2006 American remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which gets by entirely on borrowed viciousness, but it is borrowing from one of the most vicious films out there; and what is, to me, his clear masterpiece, 2010's Piranha 3D, a tacky, torrid celebration of exploitation movie success in all it forms, the bloodier the better. The last of this is, obviously, the film I was most thinking off in the run-up to Crawl - both are killer animal horror movies about toothy carnivores in the water, and both have the miraculous decency to come to us with running times a hair below 90 minutes - but whereas Piranha 3D pushes to the outermost limits of how much violence once can depict in a film that will be released to mainstream theaters (highlights include a woman being scalped by an outboard motor in a well-lit long take, and a dismembered penis bobbing towards us in stereoscopic glory), Crawl is... God, I almost want to say "chaste". "Demure", at least, and I actually guffawed in disbelief when a friend informed me that it was released in the United States with an R-rating.

Perhaps it's that Aja no longer has to prove that he can be a master of outlandish gore, and instead has elected to content himself with simply making the best yarn he can manage. For even if Crawl does not feel like much of an auteurist piece, neither is it mere hackwork: this is a movie made with distinct talent and obvious love, a movie that knows that even people who want to see a thoroughly preposterous movie about alligators menacing a pretty girl during a hurricane still deserve to have a genuinely good time, and not just the soulless entertainment mechanisms that too many big studio productions seem to regard as a sufficient surrogate for "fun". Not that the summer of 2019, now more than halfway over, has been putting up more than its fair share of good or even merely decent films, but Crawl is pretty effortlessly among the top tier of this year's summer season. Aesthetically, even, not just as something that's a sufficient accompaniment to air conditioning and popcorn.

The film is brutally efficient, as something whose end credits take it up to 87 minutes would have to be. There is one narrative throughline that expresses one emotional journey, and every single piece of storytelling, even the ones that seem to be spurious, in some way needs to be there to keep the plot ratcheting along. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) is on the University of Florida swim team, where she is good enough to compete and bad enough that she's right on the bubble of being cut from the team. So there's a perfect example of how Michael & Shawn Rasmussen's script puts everything to work. Why the University of Florida? Because it's a great enough sports school that "just barely good enough to stay on the team" means you can still be really good (also for the self-evident joke about the Gators gear that Haley wears), and it needs to be in driving distance of southern Florida. Why does she need to be a really good swimmer? So we won't think it's completely ludicrous when she - spoiler alert, but not actually - can outswim an alligator. But why does she need to be just barely good enough to stay on the team? Because we need to know that there's a level of frustrated desperation underpinning damn near everything in her life that a team-leading star athlete probably wouldn't have. And so on.

A great big nasty Category 5 hurricane is sweeping towards the southern Florida town where Haley's recently-divorced father Dave (Barry Pepper) lives, and her out-of-state sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) is worried about him, given that he's not picking up the phone. Haley is also sort of worried, but she's also sort of annoyed. Still, she's got that whole frustrated overachiever thing happening, so she drops everything to drive down and look for him. Turns out he's badly wounded in the crawlspace of the old family home, presently unoccupied by anything but bad memories, and barely conscious, though he perks up maybe a bit too readily when she finds him. Could also be adrenaline, though, because as we'll find out in almost no time, his bad wounds come courtesy of the alligator padding about in the crawlspace, just on the other side of the dense nest of pipes he's managed to scramble into. Nope, wait - make that two alligators. Also, the hurricane is really starting to bear down, and the street outside the house is already flooding, enough to send a steady rivulet into the crawlspace. So we have two ticking clocks for Haley to race - getting out before they both drown, and also before her dad completely blacks out from blood loss - while she's also trying to stay clear of a pair of ambush predators in a space almost custom-designed to favor their skill set while hindering her own.

It doesn't get a lot more briskly direct than that, and while Crawl builds this out - the list of threatening gators blossoms from "just the two" to "the entire crocodilian population of the Everglades, apparently" as the movie evolves - there's something gleefully clean and tidy about how the Rasmussens and Aja always maintain a laser focus on pure survival-mode conflict. There is always one threat that matters right now, and once it is sufficiently dealt with, there is one more. This could easily feel monotonous or repetitive, but Aja keeps the film moving at such a steady, racing pace that we never really get a chance to think about how arbitrary the plot develops, or how it sort of feels like those beat-'em-up video games that patiently let you resolve one wave of bad guys before ushering in the next.

The thing is, even if Crawl is sort of nothing but one damn thing after another, cutting off quite crisply at the precise instant that it has resolved the primary question, "will Haley get eaten by an alligator?" and not giving us any time to cool down, let alone bother with a denouement (think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and you're on the right track), it certainly doesn't need to be more than that. Aja's gift, one that I don't know that he's ever demonstrated before and certainly not this well, lies in staging moments of tension and jump scares with such presence and heaviness that we, like Haley, genuinely can't do much but think about this minute right now where there is a FUCKING alligator like five feet over there. He is helped, immeasurably, by his go-to cinematographer, Maxime Alexandre, who captures that crawlspace with all of the murky grey shadows that make it just barely impossible to make out large reptilian shapes that are also a bit murky and grey, while also leaning into the sharp, weirdly saturated colors that happen when sunlight starts to get diffuse and the sky goes dark grey during a storm. It is a film with a tremendous feeling of physical atmosphere, not the kind that comes up with spooky haunted house theatrics, but realises that claustrophic, underlit crawlspaces are creepy enough already, as are the uncannily dark days of storms. The alligators are a threat, but they're not monsters; they're something that becomes supremely annoying when introduced to a situation that already offers plenty of visually striking stress triggers.

In fact, they are very much not monsters: while neither Haley nor Dave ever offers a size estimate (because they wouldn't, and the film doesn't like extraneous add-ons), my own sense is that the gators top out at about 12-15 feet. Big, but definitely not bigger than these animals get. And they have such a sense of girth and weight: the animation on the visual effects is remarkable compared to even a very impressively-budgeted studio tentpole, capturing the meaty thickness of the gators and their damp, scaly texture, while contrasting that to the easy menace with which they float through water. In one very critical respect, the effects fall short: the gators are a bit too well-lit and oddly untroubled by the hazy air in the crawlspace, and for all that they convince as large, terrifying predators, they don't convince as large, terrifying predators who physically exist anywhere remotely near Kaya Scodelario. Which is not a little deal.

Still, can I pretend it's a big deal that I actually cared about, moment-by-moment? Only sometimes. Other times, I was too busy being carried along by Aja's skillful staging of gloomy mystery and jump scares (the film makes good use of the curious trait of gators on land - they are huge, heavy creatures that can still lunge like nobody's business, but they can't really keep up speed past that lunge), plus his complete commitment to subjectively yoking us to Haley. And that works because of Scodelario's hugely engaging performance, all sweat and strained expressions of adrenaline-fueled alertness: it's a combination of threadbare physical and a steel core of resolve that's not so much "I am an unbreakable movie hero" as "I'm definitely going to die, but I'm going to make the motherfuckers work for it". Plus, there's a tetchy, flinty quality to her performance that makes her seem not completely likable, and rather too short-tempered and stubborn to become a terrified victim (the film is never first operating as a character drama, though part of what makes it pleasurable is how authentic the two main characters feel, and part of that authenticity is that they both definitely come across as prone to be being button-pushing assholes, thanks to a pair of unsentimental performances). All of which suggests that Haley views the gators as a very real threat, but not an existential terror, and the movie does fantastic work in making us adopt that viewpoint for ourselves, largely by never offering another one. So we're constantly invested in the omnipresent danger they represented, even if, viewed coldly and clinically, the obvious CGI effects can't really endanger anybody.

So really, what else do you need? Good, menacing creatures, a well-etched character to fight them off, with just enough emotional baggage foregrounded that we feel she's a real human, but not so much that we start caring more about the daddy/daughter conflict than the much more present problems of hurricanes and alligators. A bit more complicated than Godard's "a girl and a gun" philosophy, but the point is the same: put a recognisable, relatable protagonist in a perilous situation that has a chain of clearly-defined challenges to resolve, and we're going to root for her and absorb some of that peril into ourselves, for at least a bit. Dress it up with the inborn mammalian fascination with and terror of giant monkey-eating lizards, and you have yourself a movie. It artlessly leaves the mechanics right on the surface - shit, it basically isn't anything but mechanics - but Crawl's simplicity, clarity, and thick atmosphere add up to one of the most effortlessly pleasurable films of the year to date. It's just so instantly, primordially satisfying, and a lot of movies have been having a big problem that lately.