A coiled masterpiece of subjective filmmaking, writer-director Trey Edward Shults' "Krisha" is, in the well-worn genre of ruined family holidays, something of an indie gauntlet thrown down. Artfully claustrophobic and anchored by a commanding breakout performance from its 64-year-old female lead, Krisha Fairchild (the director's aunt), this astonishing debut feature offers a simultaneously dread-filled and empathetic picture of a damaged soul.
At its best, it calls to mind such breakdown classics as "Repulsion" and "Keane" and the unflinching psychodramas of John Cassavetes. (That Shults just won an Independent Spirit award named after the late "A Woman Under the Influence" director feels wholly justified.)
The situation is Thanksgiving Day at the suburban Texas home of an extended family, but the movie's real setting is the teetering mind of visiting aunt Krisha, because the movie's first image, accompanied by a menacing rumble, is her striking, lined face staring at us, seemingly on the edge of fear or madness.
The matriarchal house of her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) is a hive of energy — cooking, football-watching, roughhousing cousins and a new baby to coo over, all captured with naturalistic verve by Shults' observant camera. But the arrival of hippie-ish, guardedly optimistic Krisha is clearly an experiment, for her and the others. Everyone's welcoming enough, but the half-hug from her grown son Trey (Shults, casting himself) speaks volumes, and a few smiles are strained.
It's not immediately clear why Krisha is an outlier, but she curses easily, keeps an assortment of meds in a lockbox and seizes up when her snarky brother-in-law (Bill Wise) brings up the past. Though she pitches in by preparing the turkey, the orbit of holiday cheer appears to be unsettling her. Tender moments between family members that Krisha silently watches from an unseen vantage point carry an unnervingly paranoid tinge. When she gets her one-on-one catch-up time with Trey, the chasm between an unfit mother trying to connect and an abandoned son feels heavy and beyond mending.
Shults' tonal confidence as a director, the sense of lingering precariousness, is rarely upended. At nearly every turn, he finds a perceptive way to visualize and auralize Krisha's anxiety and keep us fearful of some irreversible destabilization. There are surprisingly subtle aspect ratio switches, from the boxy 1:33 frame that marks that scary opening close-up to the standard 1:85 that symbolizes her stab at normalcy, and then to a flattened-out widescreen when Krisha is drunk from a squirreled away bottle of wine. Then there's composer Brian McOmber's upset-stomach of a score, marked by percussive atonalities and moaning strings. Watching "Krisha" is like being shut inside the faulty machinery of the black sheep, unsure of her chance to fit in again and practically addicted to the feeling of being on the brink.
The fertility of Shults' image-making and storytelling skills is almost breathtaking, and much of "Krisha" draws on the subconscious power of his direction in tandem with Krisha Fairchild's mesmerizing turn. A seemingly innocuous moment nuzzling a dog quickly turns into a microcosm of Krisha's iffy parenting skills, while her transferring of the turkey from the oven to the counter is given the explosive tension of the nitro truck crossing the bridge in "The Wages of Fear." Laughing is acceptable. Cringing is expected. Appreciation for Krisha Fairchild is a must.
Though supposedly culled from real family situations in Austin-based Shults' own clan, and peopled with real relatives on screen — that's his grandmother too, showing up halfway through in a wheelchair — in no way does the movie feel like a simplistic airing of grievances. It's tense but funny, grim yet openhearted, an emotional horror show you could immediately dive into again. In other words, it's family, everyone. Strapped in?
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
MPAA rating: R, for language, substance abuse and some sexual content
Playing: Landmark NuArt, West Los Angeles