“Off-kilter” is one way to describe the feverish approach of Krisha, the feature debut of writer/director Trey Edward Shults. As a stylistic choice, off-kilter ain’t easy to pull off. This movie opens with one long take, as a 60-something woman parks on a blandly suburban street and pulls her wheeled luggage to a big anonymous house. She’s our title character, as we learn when the door opens and various members of her family welcome her inside. But we already sense this is not a regular Thanksgiving reunion. Krisha has been angrily muttering to herself, in the manner of people who are just barely holding it together, and her family’s greetings are cautious, as though there are eggshells scattered around the house ready to be trampled on. This long shot has a funky, uncomfortable rhythm, as the camera finds strange places to perch and the soundtrack takes on the odd quality of tinnitus.
Is the whole movie going to feel like the “veal cutlets and cocaine” sequence from GoodFellas? No, but Shults comes close. Krisha is like one of those wacky holiday family-reunion comedies, but played for real instead of laughs. Krisha (played by Krisha Fairchild) has been wandering for some years, and is back on Thanksgiving for a tentative détente with the family. Her chipper sister is going to let Krisha do the turkey—such a nice gesture, what could go wrong?—and there will surely be room to establish contact with Krisha’s now-grown son, Trey (played by Shults himself). For a while we’re not aware of the source of the estrangement between the bohemian Krisha and her family—her attitude is that everybody is a sell-out except her—but it’s clear she can’t be entirely trusted.
The film’s nightmarish mood comes not only from Shults’ queasy camerawork or Brian McOmber’s score (which wouldn’t be out of place in a 1960s Japanese horror flick). It’s also the accumulation of little things: the dozen-or-so yapping dogs running around the property, the grotesque detail of the turkey preparation, the attention given to Krisha’s missing finger. Shults—who worked as an assistant on a few Terrence Malick projects—is borrowing like crazy here, and at times the specter of David Lynch seems to manifest itself. That undressed turkey becomes the most alarming piece of movie poultry since the creepy Cornish game hens in Eraserhead. Shults may be working on a subliminal level here; I started worrying that Krisha was putting the bird in the oven too late, so its cooking became another source of anxiety in a film stuffed with them.
Shults has said that the shot-on-a-micro-budget Krisha was distilled from his own experiences with an unstable father and cousin. Perhaps in that spirit, he has enlisted his own family to play many of the roles in the film. The fierce, don’t-mess-with-me Krisha Fairchild is his real-life aunt—an experienced if little-known actress and onetime Seattle resident—and Krisha’s sister Robyn is played by her sister Robyn, the director’s mother. Various cousins fill the ranks, as does Texas actor Bill Wise as Krisha’s wisecracking brother-in-law. Not everything falls together; some obviously improvised scenes between Krisha and the brother-in-law are amusing enough to throw off the overall tone. But when the film is in the groove, it’s really spooky.
Krisha certainly puts you through it. Shults has said his next film will be a horror movie, but that might be redundant after this. Is the film a little one-note, even at 82 minutes? Maybe, but Shults’ approach fits the central character. There’s no breathing room here, no fresh air. Krisha’s family has tried to help her; she’s tried to help herself; time has worked its healing ways; but nothing turns this ship away from its trajectory with a Thanksgiving iceberg. That’s not just a filmmaker aggressively trying to make a point with a movie, it’s an observation about certain kinds of lost souls. So many stories are about people growing and learning and gaining redemption. Krisha knows it doesn’t always happen like that. Krisha, Sundance Cinemas, 4500 Ninth Ave. N.E., sundancecinemas.com. Rated R. Opens March 25.