More than once in writer-director Trey Edward Shults' grimly fascinating drama "Krisha," the camera slowly closes on the title character's troubled face. With her wizened features, sunken eyes and unkept white hair, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, the filmmaker's aunt) wears the beaten down look of a woman baffled by a world that has slipped beyond her grasp. Shults' dizzying filmmaking technique compliments that distant gaze, as he chronicles the alcoholic woman's attempt to convince her estranged relatives that she has managed to stabilize her life over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner that careens into chaos. It's no surprise that things don't go as planned, but "Krisha" derives an extraordinary sense of mystery around the nature of the character's problems — and whether she indeed possesses the ability to control them.
Based on 2014 short film, Shults' feature-length debut was shot in nine days and the cast mainly features members of his family. It constantly runs the risk of devolving into a form of cinematic family therapy. Yet the personal dimension of the project mainly involves its continuing fixation on Krisha's subjectivity, with impressively choreographed long takes and Brian McOmber's jagged, disorienting score taking prominence over much in the way of straightforward exposition.
Once Krisha arrives at her relatives' palatial home, she drifts from one room to another, as we observe her family maintain a cautious distance from her. The contrast between her solitary ways and the group dynamic of her relatives draws out her status as the black sheep of the group. With overlapping dialogue highlighting the disconnect between Krisha and the rest of the family as they engage in various preparations in the kitchen, Shults encompasses the activity of his vast ensemble in a tightly contained environment with an ambition that suggests shades of Robert Altman. Yet the extreme psychological despair that ultimately takes shape calls to mind Ingmar Bergman's "Cries & Whispers," which also describes Krisha's erratic state as her repressed despair gives way to violent expression during the unsettling final act.
Before it gets there, "Krisha" efficiently outlines the uneven family dynamics in play. Her sister, Vicky (Victoria Fairchild), views Krisha with a continuing skepticism that hints at a dark backstory gradually taking shape. Their mother, a senile woman barely aware of her surroundings, epitomizes the sense of disconnection that plagues the household. Through their fleeting exchanges, "Krisha" develops into a deep character study with remarkable economy.
Still, not every strand totally adds up — a frayed bond between Krisha and her son (Shults, seemingly playing himself, like the rest of the cast) doesn't quite lead anywhere, and the director's tendency to cut between two events taking place at different points in the evening tends to distract from the real-time quality of the proceedings. Humorless to a fault, the morose atmosphere threatens to overwhelm the narrative momentum, and Shults' fractured ending fails to arrive at a powerful conclusion on par with some of the more extraordinary sequences leading up to it.
But "Krisha" snaps into focus whenever Shults' camera remains trained on his extraordinary lead, whose fierce commitment easily recalls a similar portrait of middle-aged alcoholism in "A Woman Under the Influence" — and, at under 90 minutes, matches its intensity in half the time. During a prolonged conversation with her brother-in-law before dinner that grows increasingly awkward, she proclaims her desire to "find a peaceful person inside of me," and the movie proceeds to explore that struggle from the inside out. The final shot once again turns the story over to the contours of Krisha's face and the shades of emotional ambiguity conveyed by it. The uncertainties that define her existence are as riveting as they are tragic.
"Krisha" premiered this week at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.