Irreconcilable Differences: Trey Edward Shults' "Krisha"

in 12nd Reykjavik International Film Festival

by José Antonio Teodoro

US writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ exceptionally resourceful, formally spellbinding, heartfelt feature debut unfolds almost entirely within and around a spacious suburban house in Montgomery, Texas, a single location that Shults renders a maze of chambers where family members congregate, people couple-off to discuss difficult matters or individuals grapple with private demons. The one, fleeting exception to this singularity of place is the unnamed, perhaps purely psychological space spied only in the film’s opening image, a slow push-in on the staring visage of its titular character, a sexagenarian woman with luxurious white curls, naked shoulders and cold, deep blue eyes, underscored by shadows that allude to a life of rough nights, boring into the lens. This image exists in a plane entirely separate from the heightened naturalism and familial hubbub that constitutes the rest of Krisha. Is this vestibule image trying to tell us something? Are those eyes trying to ask us something? Krisha features a very large ensemble of characters and among them Shults has selected the one who is arguably the hardest to love and singled her out for us to identify with. Perhaps that opening vestibule is meant to be a kind of mirror. Do you see anything of yourself here?

That opening image is followed by cinematographer Drew Daniels’ elegantly mapped bravura Steadicam shot that follows Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) as she parks her SUV, searches for the house of her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), is welcomed into Robyn’s house and reunites with a battery of cheerful family members of all ages, the last of whom is Trey (Shults), her apparently long-estranged son, who is more cordial than affectionate. What minimal exposition Krisha needs to convey is wisely doled out or hinted at incrementally through glances, questions, a few lines of dialogue—e.g.: it’s Thansgiving, and this is Krisha’s first encounter with her family in more than a decade—the reveal of a lockbox stuffed with medications and notes and Krisha’s strained declaration that she is “working on becoming a more spiritual person.” This is a form of spirituality that, it would seem, requires a certain pharmaceutical assistance to come to fruition.

Meanwhile tensions rise in ever-more curious ways: the very funny, convivial and clever yet slightly pinched banter between Krisha and the Bush-quoting Doyle (Bill Wise); a hilariously hysterical arm wrestling match between a couple of the boys; the countless rambunctious dogs roaming the property; a visual catalogue of everything that can be found inside a dead turkey; an image of an oven’s interior that would likely have pleased Stanley Kubrick; the use of lenses that apply a slight distortion to certain scenes; Brian McOmber’s superb score, which moves between lyrical and ambient and something more akin to musique concrète, burbling at times like brain synapses firing or household appliances in overdrive; the way the camera will follow characters ominously, as though leading us to some grotesque revelation. Shults infuses his orchestra of domestic hubbub with alien energies. Everything is at once familiar, exhilarating and unnerving in its details, right down to the witchy Krisha’s stump of a finger. Indeed, in terms of technique so much of this could be a horror movie. And it nearly is, to the extent that we watch Krisha waiting for something to go horribly wrong, even before we sense any specific cause for it. As evening comes (the film unfolds over a period of less than 24 hours) Krisha changes into a red dress less fitting for family gathering than for a hot date. Or a catastrophe. Doyle will eventually refer to Krisha as “disaster incarnate,” which, depending on the degree of sympathy you bring to people who suffer from addictions and tendencies to royally fuck things up, might seem unfair. But one of the great feats of this film is that it recognizes that so much of life, especially when it comes to family dynamics, is unfair and probably irresolvable—yet Krisha still exudes love for each and every person onscreen.

That sense love is no doubt enhanced by the fact that Krisha is, on every level, a family affair. The film was shot over a mere nine days in Shults’ parents’ house. Krisha is played by Shults’ aunt, Robyn by his mother. The wheelchair-bound grandmother (Billie Fairchild), central to the film’s most affecting and layered scene of confrontation, and who speaks what is arguably the film’s most poignant line of dialogue (she suddenly says, “Come back, Krisha,” at a moment when you’d think no one could possibly want Krisha back), is played by Shults’ own grandmother. One can imagine that Shults received tremendous support in this ambitious endeavor, which is a world away from the typical slacker US indie debut in its beauty, invention and precision. Shults started in the industry by interning with Terrence Malick, and the eccentric maestro’s meticulous approach to craft seems to have rubbed off. And as with Malick’s films, the occasional overreaching moment—a somewhat too on-the-nose use of Nina Simone’s ‘Just in Time’; a third act that gets temporarily bogged down in peak emotional outbursts—is not only forgivable but feels of a piece with the film’s spirit of adventure, a small dash of recklessness to balance the overriding, potentially stifling sense of directorial control. Krisha is a striking debut from a filmmaker with an unabashedly bold vision. What’s more, after watching and thinking a great deal about Krisha, I haven’t the slightest idea what Shults will do next.

José Teodoro