Trey Edward Shults' directorial debut shows a filmmaker only interested in emotional intensity for its own sake.
After its premiere at 2015’s SXSW Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury and Audience awards), Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha received comparisons to the likes of John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick. Given that Shults has worked on several of Malick’s recent films—starting out as an intern on The Tree of Life—those comparisons feel obvious, even though they’re earned. The Cassavetes comparisons come from both Shults’ low-budget, indie origins and his close-knit cast (almost everyone in the film is a family member). These associations with such big names in American indie filmmaking have critics and audiences making their point clear: Krisha marks the arrival of a new, bold voice for indie films.
Then again, referring to Shults’ work as nothing but an amalgamation of potential influences only does a good job describing what Krisha is like, rather than what it actually is. There’s something here that sets Shults apart from every other up and coming American director getting their break at film festivals around the country, and it’s evident right from the beginning: a close-up of the title character (Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ real-life aunt) staring the camera down, with ominous strings surging on the soundtrack. That stark opening shot is followed by a complex long take, where Krisha walks around a suburban neighbourhood looking for a house, finds it after winding up at the wrong place, and then introduces herself to the guests inside. It’s soon revealed that the guests are Krisha’s own family, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade, and she’s arrived to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Shults’ decision to film the sequence in one lengthy shot implies either a keen understanding of his own material—the high-wire act of pulling off such a sequence feeding into the awkward nature of the family reunion—or a showy stunt, the kind first-time directors like to make as a way to get noticed.
What differentiates Shults from the pack has less to do with story (he’s far from the first person to tackle a disastrous holiday reunion) and more to do with his execution. Krisha’s decade-long absence from her family’s lives is due in large part to her addictions and penchant for self-destructive behaviour, and Shults lets the film’s form act as a gateway into his lead character’s anxious perspective. Using quick cuts, whirling camera movements, an abrasive score (courtesy of Brian McOmber), shifting aspect ratios, and plenty of other tricks, the film becomes a cacophony that reflects Krisha’s immense, self-imposed stress. Despite the invite from her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild, Shults’ mother), Krisha senses the anger and resentment brewing just underneath her relatives’ friendly demeanor. She expects every interaction with one of her family members to turn confrontational at any second.
But how can Krisha work as an entrance into its protagonist’s mind when there’s no proper context for it? The bulk of Krisha’s concerns come from the fear of her family calling out her poor behaviour over the years, yet Shults cares little about establishing his other characters’ relationships to her. Beyond a basic establishing of her past issues and the uncomfortable nature of the reunion, Shults doesn’t bother trying to convey a full understanding of what brought Krisha and her family to their current emotional states. That makes the inevitable sour turn of events, culminating in Krisha’s relapse, unearned; her downward spiral feels manufactured for maximum melodrama, and her relatives the pawns designed to carry the story to its emotionally charged destination.
So if we want to find a different filmmaker to compare Shults to, one that helps explain his sensibilities rather than the conditions of his production, we just have to look north. Much like Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s work—more specifically Mommy and Tom at the Farm—Shults shows an interest in emotional intensity for its own sake. They prefer to let the visceral qualities of shouting matches and familial angst compensate for the lack of any weight behind these intense feelings, all while wrapping it up in superfluous or ineffective formal quirks that amplify the content, instead of complementing or supporting it. Granted, Shults’ approach is an effective one, even if it’s transparent; Fairchild gives a great performance, and there’s something inherently involving about watching this family fall apart. But it only works up to a certain point. As Krisha keeps going, it’s obvious that its director only knows how to operate in loud, shrill tones, and what the film amounts to is a fireworks show: loud, short bursts of excitement that fade fast and get old quick. It doesn’t come as a surprise when the film ends during its most heated moment, cutting off mid-scream to a dedication before the credits start rolling. With Krisha, Shults shows that he knows how to get people’s attention—figuring out what to do with it is another story altogether.