KRISHA (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated R

for strong language, substance abuse, and some sexual content
Released: March 18, 2016 limited; April 15, 2016 expands
Runtime: 83 minutes
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Krisha Fairchild, Bill Wise, Robyn Fairchild, Trey Edward Shults

Bravo Trey Edward Shults. You’ve not only shown the world – and every would-be filmmaker – that it’s actually possible to display an auteur-level of skill your first time out, but that it’s also possible on a microbudget.

Yes, there have been impressive no-name debuts throughout film history, particularly since the independent movie boon of the 1990s, and cinephiles will rank this one according to their own tastes (but make know mistake, this will be ranked). Nevertheless, with Krisha, Trey Edward Shults has made a film that is staggeringly mature and assured in its display of film craft, language, and art, harnessing apparent influences from Hitchcock to Kubrick and even Robert Altman (with single-take scenes defined by a roaming camera that captures overlapping dialogue and action).

And it all takes place over a weekend in one suburban Texas home.

At first glance, the synopsis of Krisha doesn’t inspire much intrigue, or hope. It’s the story of an aging woman who’s screwed up her life, and she brings her hot mess to a family Thanksgiving after having not seen many of them for years, including her son (played by Shults, in a minor but pivotal role). Yawn, right? It sounds like a carbon copy of so many dysfunctional family dramas that clog up film festival programs.

But from the opening shot (pictured above), we know that Krisha is up to something more. It’s an extended close-up, a slow dolly in on the titular character’s face (played by Shults’s aunt), darkly lit, as she looks directly into camera, obliterating the fourth wall with her penetrating gaze. Creepy music underscores. In utilizing these few, sparse elements, Shults has us disturbed and unsettled right out of the gate.

Cut to Krisha arriving at the house. The rest of the family is already there (most played by Shults’ actual family, not professionals, but in different roles than their real-life relationships, yet each use their real first names for their character names). Krisha’s swearing under her breath before the first knock on the door, and then excessively joyful once she walks through it. The contrast is an immediate giveaway to her volatile, anxious nature, one that her faux geniality works overtime to mask.

Shults takes us into familiar territory, but not in familiar ways. First, aesthetically, he turns a family drama into a horror story. Not in the literal genre sense; there’s no killings, violence, or jump scares, nor does it turn toward the paranormal. It’s a psychological portrait, told effectively with stylistic genre tropes, at times in truly inspired fashion.

And second, this is not your conventional “skeletons in the closet” holiday weekend. Family sins and secrets are not finally confronted at some full melodramatic tilt. Everyone’s dirty laundry is not aired. This family is not dysfunctional. Krisha is. And like the witch or demon of the story, Krisha has come to haunt them.

Not that she intends to. Quite the opposite, actually. She’s there to heal rifts, but her manic hysteria only rips them wider. Krisha is a very real, complex character. Credit actress Krisha Fairchild and Shults’s nuanced sensitivity for humanizing such a trainwreck. Yes, Krisha is a toxic figure – but also a tragic one.

Early on, the “horrors” are found in the mundane: meal prep, computer problems, loud dogs. The things of life that cumulatively drive you crazy. They all form a stew that, through the first act, is on a slow but steady boil, simmering everybody’s deeper discontents – Krisha’s especially. (Pulling out the innards of the cold raw turkey becomes an apt visual metaphor.)

So when Krisha finally attempts to reconcile with the family she hasn’t seen in years, her personal one-on-ones don’t go as she had hoped (with her son especially). We don’t know the details of how bridges were once burned, but we’re given enough to know that it was Krisha who did the burning. The ashes are all of her making.

Despite attempts at self-improvement, Krisha remains a damaged soul, one so desperate to get her own needs met that she neglects the needs of others, even as she’s trying to be vulnerable with them. She’s trying so hard to be heard and understood that she never actually hears or understands the people she wants to connect with.

So now in her 60s, the consequences of her narcissism and neglect seem insurmountable. Why do people like Krisha fail at embracing the health, healing, and change they sincerely long for? Because it requires work, and all they’re looking for is relief.

When Krisha’s personal demon is finally revealed, it’s not a supernatural spectre. It’s an internal horror that attacks from within. The chilling revelation is how all too common a demon it is. Krisha is a timebomb, waiting to go off. Something will light the fuse, and this won’t end well.

Yes, in terms of production, the lack of money is all up there on the screen, with a lower-grade video resolution and DIY approach to every department from casting on down (although the one professional actor, Bill Wise, who plays Krisha’s very colorful brother-in-law was well worth whatever Shults paid him). Where Shults shows his mastery is in how he captures it all with the camera, and then how he artfully assembles it in the editing room. He doesn’t just make great use of very little. He elevates it. Seriously, this guy knows how to make movies.

Studios should be begging Shults to become one of those recent spate of directors (Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards, to name two) that have made the gigantic leap straight from shoe-string indie to tentpole blockbuster. It’s not simply that the potential is there. The filmmaking goods are all there right now in Krisha, as are the instincts, as if fully formed out of the womb.

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