If family gatherings are the stuff of horror, then Thanksgiving must be the ultimate terror. Complicated histories, strange mannerisms and different cultures all converge for the sake of “family,” whatever that word means.
In “Krisha,” the debut feature by writer-director Trey Edward Shults, we’re made privy to one such horror story. On its surface, “Krisha” tells a simple story: a woman in her sixties, the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, “The Killing of John Lennon”), estranged from her family and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, returns for a Thanksgiving dinner. Slowly, the complex linkages between Krisha and her sisters, brothers-in-law, nephews and nieces all unravel, leaving Krisha in a delicate space.
“Krisha” is a film you should see alone. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy company during my viewing, but to sit alone in a darkened theater, staring at this woman’s struggles with no one to turn to, must be a singularly horrifying experience. I first drew a comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” a tale of isolation in an isolated place. But “Krisha” tells a story of isolation amid a large group of people — even the people one should be closest with. Krisha often sulks upstairs, away from the action, looking down at them from her window (the spatial logic of the house, like in “The Shining,” is labyrinthine). She turns more quickly to her box of prescription pills than her family.
And even when she’s in the company of her family, she often feels rejected, left out or, in some way or another, mocked. Her jovial conversation with her brother-in-law quickly turns sour, and her mother can barely remember her. The opening shot of the film, an absolutely stunning slow tracking shot toward Krisha’s weeping face, shows that on closer examination, every family is truly messed up.
“Krisha,” at times, feels like if Terrence Malick did something like “The Shining.” This is only natural, as Shults worked as an assistant for Malick on a number of his films before helming “Krisha.” Shults uses a wide-ranging palette of sounds to simulate Krisha’s sobering experiences. In the kitchen, the sounds of the television blasting ESPN or of kids bouncing balls on the floor seem almost comical in their juxtaposition with the beeping score (literal beeps are a large component of the truly sinisterly terrifying score), and Krisha doesn’t seem pleased. For her, family comes with the baggage of sensory overload itself, and Shults doesn’t hold back in letting us know what she’s feeling. One particular climactic scene is rendered in a blur of words, actions and visions. Suddenly, the act of cooking the turkey has turned into a nightmarish daze.
Shults’s debut is made all the more impressive by the sheer low-budget factor of it all. Shults wrote, directed, edited and starred in the film. Most of the actors are his actual family members. He also doesn’t mind using his own personal information in the film. Shults, who studied business management in college and then dropped out to follow his passion of making films, portrays the conveniently named Trey, who is currently studying — you guessed it — business management while harboring aspirations of becoming — right again — a filmmaker.
Fairchild’s performance is simply incredible. From her clothes to her bags to the way she walks and talks to herself, we know this character. Disheveled yet caring, Krisha has long been separated from her family and her anticipation for seeing them again is met by an equally strong anxiety. Her life is in shambles, to put it lightly, but she herself is fun and funny. This we can gather from the opening moments of the film. Everything after is icing on the cake.