Viewers can be forgiven for thinking they’re watching a horror movie as Krisha, the stunning first film from director Trey Edward Shults, opens. We first see the title character (Krisha Fairchild, in an extraordinary lead performance) in close-up, framed against a black backdrop. Discordant music plays as the camera slowly zooms in on her wrinkled face as her lower lip starts to quiver. There are now words, but the message is clear: Something’s not right with Krisha, something that could destroy her and those around her. And while there’s nothing supernatural at play and no real violence in Krisha, the cinematic language isn’t lying. There’s horror at the heart of the film, it’s just horror of a different kind.
Krisha, the film quickly establishes, is an addict, and one whose Thanksgiving invitation to her sister’s house doubles as her latest last chance to do right by the family she hasn’t seen in years. It’s clear from the start she’s not likely to make it work. After first wandering to the wrong house, she moves through her sister Robyn’s (Robyn Fairchild) welcoming Texas home enacting one awkward reunion after another — a process Shults lets play out in a long, unbroken shot. The smiles look forced, but there’s good intentions all around. Everyone wants this to work, even Krisha’s estranged son Trey (played by the director). Everyone suspects it won’t. Then Krisha excuses herself, tends to a finger that’s been amputated at the knuckle (for reasons we never learn), and opens up a locked box filled with pills.
It’s, of course, all downhill here from there. But while Krisha covers familiar territory, Shults’ approach makes it feel unsettlingly new. The camera never strays far from Krisha as it floats through the crowd of relatives, helping in the kitchen, fending off a pack of enthusiastic dogs, and making small talk with her brother-in-law Doyle (Bill Wise). Through careful camerawork, pans that capture telling details, and smart editing that lets Krisha’s face reveal what what she rarely says aloud, Shults makes the brightly lit, tastefully decorated family home feel as unsafe as any shadowy cabin in the woods. Tension mounts as her friendly chat with Doyle dredges up deeper issues, and an attempt to connect with Trey reveals how little she knows about him. In time, it breaks, by which point Shults has struck an extraordinary balance by making Krisha seem at once monstrous in her inability to change and deeply sympathetic. It’s heartbreaking when it all goes wrong, even when it’s all her fault.
A film isn’t made better or worse by its backstory, but it’s worth mentioning Krisha‘s anyway. If you’ve noticed a string of similar surnames in the cast, there’s a reason: Shults shot the low-budget movie — expanded from a short he made after an earlier failed attempt at shooting it as a feature — in his parent’s home using mostly his family as the cast. Krisha Fairchild, an experienced actress, is his aunt. Robyn Fairchild, his mother, is a professional therapist. Other players include his nonagenarian grandmother Billie Fairchild and assorted other family members playing characters who share their first names. That’s not the only family connection: The scenario is inspired by a cousin, the tense parental relationship comes from Shults’ own experiences with his late father, and the grandmother’s not-quite-there behavior comes from late-in-life alcoholism. (For more, take a moment to read our interview with Shults and Krisha Fairchild.)
The film’s rawness comes from a real place, one that many have experienced firsthand and one that’s been portrayed in movie after movie. It’s Shults’ filmmaking skills that set the film apart, his command of the camera, his deft handling of a cast of mostly non-actors, his use of Brian McOmber’s unnerving score (the scariest soundtrack this side of The Witch), and his willingness to let a few allusive lines of dialogue and family photos stand in for years of history. It would be a remarkable accomplishment for any director, to say nothing of a first-timer working with a budget cobbled together in part from Kickstarter. There’s an urgency here, and a sense that Shults had to tell this story, and tell it in a way that would make people pay attention. And follow it through to the bitter end.
Krisha opens in limited release today before expanding nationally.