As I mentioned in my less-than-thrilled review of Knight of Cups, I just don’t have the capacity within me to fall in love with a Terrence Malick flick. Yet, I keep returning to the director’s work because there’s so much promise in his raw material. Turns out the answer to this self-conflict might actually be to follow the career of Malick’s collaborators rather than to keep returning to a director that continually burns me. Tree of Life was one of my all-time most disappointing trips to the theater, but it did introduce me to the wonderful talents of actor Jessica Chastain & cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, both of whom I have been keeping a close eye on ever since. What’s even more surprising, though, is the out of nowhere talent of young writer/director Trey Edward Shults, who had worked on the sets of Malick productions Tree of Life, Weightless, Voyage of Time, To the Wonder, and *shudder* Knight of Cups, but just made his own debut film Krisha. In his very first feature film effort the young talent has, in my my mind, beaten Malick at his own game. Malick has an undeniable talent at constructing an image & a hypnotic tone, but his intensifying disinterest in narrative has left his films dull & meaningless experiences for me. Trey Edward Shults obviously paid close attention to how to evoke the potency of Malick’s raw material, but repurposes it for a clear, deeply personal narrative that makes its impact count for something. Krisha doesn’t always resembles the tone poem hypnosis of a Malick work, but when it chooses to use that cinematic mode as a storytelling tool it makes the impact count for more than any 30 seconds of a Malick film ever has in the past.
A lot of what drives home the impact of Krisha is the heart aching sincerity. The film’s central story is based on a real life tragedy in Shults’s family, stars his family, and is filmed in his parent’s home. This is an undeniably cheap-looking production, but the pain & anguish it reveals transcends its means. A woman returns to the cautiously open arms of her anxious family after a ten year separation & estrangement. There’s a mystery to the past trauma that has kept the estranged family member, Krisha, as an arm’s length black sheep, an ambiguous separation represented by the image of a deformed finger & the occasional tense accusation of her “selfishness” & “abandonment.” Although the exact circumstances of Krisha’s departure are never made explicitly clear, she does carry the faux-spiritual air of a recovering addict, calling her GPS “a lying bitch” in one breath & then claiming that she’s “working on becoming a more spiritual person” in the next. As the mounting tension of her tentative return to the fold escalates along with the stress inherent to orchestrating even the most congenial Thanksgiving meal, Krisha seems to be slowly barreling towards a relapse into abuse (both substance & familial), like a turkey slowly reaching the right temperature on an oven rack. The layering of tension in Krisha is methodical & deceptively casual. Once the pressure is released, however, it’s difficult to think back to a moment when the film felt at all civil or tightly contained. The Malickian looseness of the film’s final act is lightly suggested throughout, but once the Shults goes for broke with the tactic it almost feels as if the film had always been that way, just as its titular antagonist had never truly been “spiritual” or reformed.
Besides Shults’s strong command of image & tone, a lot of what makes Krisha stand out is the titular performance from his real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild. Her stressed-out addict’s faux hippie costume of serenity & acceptance is a bravely difficult balance to toe, especially considering the metatextual factoid that she’s portraying a real-life member of her family. Krisha’s pathetic attempts to make herself useful in the kitchen or to personally connect with individual members of a family she does not know would be absolutely devastating if it weren’t coming from such a phony, selfish place. Other non-actors in the film give memorably great, effective performances, most notably a grandmother figure who makes the horrors of dementia feel way too real, but this is undeniably Krisha Fairchild’s show. The film opens with her starkly framed & vulnerably staring down the audience, somewhat similar to Thomasin in The Witch, and the performance gets no more vain or glamorous from there. It’s a truly unique mode of self-effacement for grim, unblinking, deeply personal art.
I may have been overselling the Malick vibes of Krisha a little too hard in my opening screed here, mostly based on the fact that I watched it so soon after Knight of Cups, a film it surpasses in intensity & impact with so few brushstrokes, not to mention that Shults had worked on both films. Without that connection you could surely find other works for easy comparison points. The arrhythmic score & cacophonous soundtrack of dogs barking & familial chattering recalls the insufferable sonic tension Paul Thomas Anderson punishes his audience with in Punch Drunk Love. The mood-evoking images of a turkey grotesquely getting prepared for the oven & general search for an open-ended, eerie tone brought me back to the terror in the ordinary established in this year’s surprise knockout punch The Fits. If you go into Krisha expecting a Malick derivative you’re going to be severely underwhelmed & agitated. Instead of copying the director’s feature length search of tone poem submersion in pure, disjointed imagery, Krisha uses that narrative approach as one of many tools in its back pocket, only to be wielded when it’s most useful.
For a first time filmmaker with an obvious eye for powerful imagery, Trey Edward Shults shows a surprising amount of restraint, saving his showier moments of technical prowess for when they best serve the story he’s telling. That story is a familial drama turned into a psychological horror of ambiguous, tension, one Shults & his family apparently had already lived through once off-camera. It’s a fascinating debut that far exceeds its obvious financial limitations and I’d much rather watch whatever the young talent has lined up next then another navel gazer of a slog like Knight of Cups, a film that’s only proven its value by inspiring better art in other works.