Take that moment of hesitation when you hear that writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ past three high-profile gigs were under Terrence Malick and what that might mean aesthetically for his first feature “Krisha," and toss them out immediately. A few waist-level Steadicam shots do in fact track animals at play and family members in silent thought during a lousy Thanksgiving, but consider the unblinking lead performance from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ strongly personal assembly of family starting with Krisha and ending with himself, and a thread of pressure-cooker humor and tension, and you get a stunner of a directorial debut.
Consistently staying one half-step off a comfortable register, Shults places the audience in the mind of a truly unwell individual from frame one. Krisha pulls up to a row of Texas mini-mansions in a blue truck with a suitcase and dog in tow. Shuffling, mumbling to herself and sporting a mess of shock-white hair, she can be seen coming from a mile away—for which her family is clearly grateful. Not that they’re much better: gathered for a Thanksgiving meal running over with dogs and relatives, constant noise and enormous amounts of turkey, her family bickers, wrestles, and generally pisses each other off nonstop.
Immediately the atmosphere is tense once Krisha arrives. Her sister Robyn (Shults’ real-life mother) introduces Krisha to old and new members of the family —babies, nephews, new husbands. One person that’s noticeably unexcited to see her is Trey (Shults), who shuts down into monosyllabic sentences every time she’s near. Shults overlaps these introductions in a flurry of movement and sound, blanketing an electronic Penderecki-esque score over the exaggerated dialogue, which is often quite funny.
Veteran actor Bill Wise (“Boyhood”) accounts for the majority of the funny moments, playing fed-up relative Doyle, who throws down caustic comments with a cackle, glasses perched at the edge of his nose while warning Krisha he “eats leather and shits saddles.” Events like retrieving files from a computer take on a farcical tone, while removing the insides of the turkey takes on a disgusting, squishy tenor.
But this is Krisha’s film completely. Shults bookends the movie with full-frame closeups of her face, and the final shot as such is devastating. The plot is concerned with struggles common to addiction: it’s not unlike “A Woman Under The Influence” but is blended with the fuck-it abandon of “Bellflower." Shults and his DP Drew Daniels shift aspect ratios when the mood calls for it, and Brian McOmbers’ score (in addition to a well-placed Nina Simone tune) crashes in at odd times to signal a shift. If the inventive compositions and moves don’t always work, they keep up with Krisha’s emotional state nonetheless.
Mostly known as a voice-over and stage actress, Krisha Fairchild tackles the part of “an abandoner” with complete honesty and expertise. Her backstory is fairly obscured until the end of the film, but as we discover that she’s missing half a finger, is carrying around a bag full of prescription drugs and repeatedly calls an unseen old lover Richard for support, the place that she’s returning from is singed with darkness.
Krisha’s only ally is Robyn, who similarly brings authenticity to her role. Shults stages an argument between the two in a bathroom that is both surreal and strikingly sober, and his eye towards letting the drama fade into silence after the cacophony of the first half serves him well. To further the personal angle, he splices in home movies from his youth to portray the distances between his character and the crumbling Krisha.
The film’s brief 83-minute running time only compounds “Krishna” as a sharp breath with no exhale; shot and paced like a thriller; it’s a dreamlike view into a woman’s inner life that ensures a tragic end. Shults built upon a short that he directed the year prior, but based on his work here, he’s set to continue further into the realm of features, intertwining the intimate and formal with a stunning ease. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.