Friday, September 23, 2016

The Merciless "Krisha"

The holidays are a special kind of hell for many of us, an uncomfortable confluence of too many people, unfamiliar settings, forced jollity, and our own personal baggage. For Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a woman in her '60s attending Thanksgiving festivities at her sister's house, we can also add the pain of a long estrangement from her family, and many old wounds being reopened. She is intent on showing everyone that she's changed for the better and she's ready to reconnect with her loved ones. However, she's clearly not prepared for the event, and the day becomes a nail-biting high wire act as Krisha struggles to keep herself together and curb her worst impulses.

Details about Krisha, her relationships, and her past, come gradually. We first find her arriving late to Thanksgiving, going to the wrong house, in a frazzled state, and cursing under her breath. When she does finally reach her destination, her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) and most of the gaggle of twenty-something guests greet her warmly. But then Robyn leaves to fetch their wheelchair-bound mother Gigi (Billie Fairchild), who lives hours away. To pass the time, Krisha chats with Robyn's husband, Doyle (Bill Wise), who clearly dislikes her. She tries to reconcile with her college-age son Trey (Trey Edward Shults), but it becomes clear that he wants nothing to do with her. She goes to the bathroom to take her medications and tend to a half-healed wound. And then, inevitably, Krisha starts to slip.

"Krisha" is the debut feature of Trey Edward Shults, who shot the whole film at his mother's house in Austin, Texas. The budget was tiny, and most of the principle actors are his relatives. Krisha Fairchild is Shults' aunt, and Robyn and Billie Fairchild are his mother and grandmother. Yet the filmmaking is remarkably self-assured, and beautifully executed. The intensity and verisimilitude of the psychodrama recall John Cassavetes, with Krisha Fairchild evoking more than a few memories of Gena Rowlands in her later films. However, the cinematography is more stylized, the images more deliberately composed and emotionally charged. We don't just witness Krisha's disintegration, but are invited to experience it with her intimately.

Brian McOmber crated the soundtrack, one of the crucial components that gives "Krisha" so much impact. He finds just the right combination of discordant music and heightened everyday sounds - the football game, the blender, the barking dogs - to really put us on edge. It's similar to Peter Strickland's recent work on "Berberian Sound Studio" and "The Duke of Burgundy." We can feel Krisha's gnawing anxiety and discomfort, in the middle of what would look like a fairly relaxed environment to an outsider. I've never seen anyone capture this so well on film, especially the way that fairly inoffensive noises can compound on top of each other, eventually drowning out everything else. The soundtrack does a great job of keeping tensions high, often to the point where it feels like we're watching a horror film. We know that Krisha is coming unglued long before it's apparent to anyone else.

And then there's Krisha Fairchild's tremendous performance, which is at the center of this whole feast. It's a positively heartbreaking portrait of an afflicted woman who is trying to make up for past mistakes with the best of intentions, but still maintains terrible, destructive habits. We never learn the details of what happened in her past to cause her estrangement, but scene after scene point to the likely culprits. As Thanksgiving day progresses, she reveals moments of terseness, instability, recklessness, and finally an ugly, destructive rage. Fairchild is wonderful throughout, able to channel so many shifting moods that can turn in an instant. And even when her behavior is at its most terrible, she's deeply sympathetic, because we know she's trying so hard.

Though Fairchild has a decent list of screen credits, she's never had a part as significant as this, and I'm so glad that she's had her breakout at last, even if it comes so late in life. I found "Krisha" tremendously affecting, and I'm eager to see what she will do next. As for Trey Edward Shults, I have no doubt that he's going to have a long and interesting career ahead of him.

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