Krisha expertly crafted and powerful, not recommended

Photos courtesy A24.

Last year’s SXSW Grand Jury and Audience Award winner has made its way to theaters. It’s a damn good movie, but not a particularly enjoyable one.

Krisha looks in on a family’s Thanksgiving afternoon and evening. The evening is made particularly special by the title character (Krisha Fairchild) returning to the family after a long absence. Krisha tries to connect with her son, Trey (Trey Edward Shults, who also writes and directs), whom her emotional and substance abuse problems drove her to abandon for her sister, Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) to raise and care for. The tension of Krisha’s past transgressions proves too much for her and the family.

It’s easy to see what made this a festival darling. Krisha is exactly the type of film critics love, but audiences won’t necessarily. As powerful as Krisha’s story and plot structure is, it’s remarkable how much power is laced into this movie’s framing, editing and camerawork. It’s drenched in style with an intrusive soundtrack, tons of long takes, a heavily edited timeline and even some dramatic aspect ratio shifts. The soundtrack is frankly not the greatest choice, but the long takes are impressive, particularly the opening shot, which follows Krisha all the way from her car to the wrong house, then to the right house, then through her initial greetings and exit to move her car. The camera is steady all the way through, but begins to shake violently as it focuses on Krisha walking out, cuing the audience in on her already-crumbling resolve.

The film’s aspect ratio mostly sticks to the standard cinematic 21:9, but shifts to a squatter panavision ratio for flashbacks and a TV-like 4:3 for scenes in which Krisha is high. Playing with aspect ratios is such a jarring thing that movies mostly steer clear of it, but they shouldn’t. Viewers sympathize with the camera, and when the camera is impaired or shifted, it cues viewers in on their perspective also shifting. When most movies want to show that the camera’s perspective is warped these days, they use a filter that turns their colorful movie into a dull greyscale or greenscale — looking at you, Matrix — mess. This was an effective technique, but over the years since its advent, color correcting everything to blue and orange has become a baseline part of movie production, so viewers are used to all the colors being muted anyway. But shifting aspect ratios is something you never get used to.

The heart of Krisha’s emotional problems is her absolute lack of self-respect. She draws her self-worth entirely from what the people around her think of her, but she also has absolutely no respect them, either. As an emotional leech, she frequently abandons and is abandoned, and when left with no one to leech from, she fills the hole where her self-worth should be with alcohol and other substances.

The movie is also remarkable for just how disgusting a character it creates and centers around. Krisha is one of the most overwhelmingly selfish characters ever filmed. She has no self-control, no self-respect and no respect for the people around her, she panics at the drop of a pin, she disappears when the going gets even mildly difficult and justifies it by saying that she’s “working on herself,” and she has a colossal entitlement complex toward love, be it familial, romantic or that of her dog. Oh, and she also abuses her dog. As Doyle (Bill Wise) tells her, these are simply not problems you get to have in your mid-60s, or at any age when you’re a mother.

This certainly isn’t the first movie to center on a bad person, but most of the time the movie still finds a way to be entertaining. The Wolf of Wall Street is about a real-life man who still owes thousands of people millions of dollars after unapologetically defrauding them on the stock market in the ’90s, Birdman’s Riggan Thompson is a character so profoundly selfish he turns his daughter’s drug problem into a function of his play — these movies are two of the consensus best films from the past few years, both raucous comedies and absolute joys to watch. Even in draconian tragedies like Citizen Kane or The Social Network, you still enjoy watching them because the movies are so rich and so well-made. There’s even a direct comparable from 2011 in Drive, which also focuses on a character who wants desperately to become a better person, but can not.

Krisha is rich and well-made, but it is far from a joy to watch. There are a couple of reasons for this — one is the extremely personal nature of the plot. It all takes place over one Thanksgiving afternoon and evening. Where Charles Foster Kane tries and fails to save the newspaper industry and become president of the U.S., Krisha tries and fails to have an uneventful dinner with her family. Kane tries to make the entire world love him, and fails at least partially because he’s aiming too high. Krisha tries to make someone, anyone at all, love her, and fails because she’s such a despicable human being.

In a deeply unsettling film, the scene with the dog stands out as the most unsettling, but also the most typical of this impossibly contemptible character. Rejected by her offscreen love interest and her family, Krisha hugs her dog for comfort. Because dogs don’t actually like to be hugged, he growls at her. She says, “Aww, don’t growl at me!” and hugs him closer. This process repeats until her cooing becomes screaming and hugging becomes throttling.

Also contributing is the movie’s emotional curve. Kane shows us a good man with laudable principles who we sympathize with and continue to feel for as he is corrupted. Krisha shows us a character who is already beyond redemption, makes us want and hope for her to get better, then crushes that hope.

Something that could block viewers from getting into this movie is its family-before-everything morality, which it imposes not in a fire-and-brimstone, come-to-Jesus you’d-better-agree-with-this sense, but in a sense that these characters believe family comes first, and if a viewer doesn’t believe that too, they’re going to have a difficult time understanding why any of this is important. If blood weren’t the strongest bond for these people, they would have closed the door on Krisha a long time ago.

Krisha begs the question of whether or not it’s a biography for first-time writer/director Shults, and it is. Krisha is a combination of Shults’ father, who’s substance abuse drove the two to a similar relationship, and his cousin, who relapsed at a family gathering after five years of sobriety and died of an overdose shortly after. It was an intensely personal project for everyone involved, as Shults used primarily his family and friends as actors. NPR has more.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Butt cancer will never not be funny. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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