There’s barely a moment in Krisha that doesn’t flaunt the tormented state of its titular protagonist, with the quivering strings that score the slow opening zoom onto her clenched visage already screaming that this is a woman under the influence. In the same way that Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) can’t help returning to the bathroom to ingest yet another illicit substance, writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s film is unable to escape its one-note perspective on its protagonist, ramming home her relentless downward spiral though an incessant parade of grandstanding stylistic flourishes.
It’s Thanksgiving and the middle-aged Krisha returns to the family fold after a 10-year absence, the perfectly generic starting point for redemption or conflict—maybe both. Although there are tears and a degree of tension on her arrival at her sister’s sizable abode, the primary indicator of how Krisha will fit into this setup is the film’s formalism, with the character’s extended walk from the car and slightly strained reception at the house all presented in a single wide-angle tracking shot whose gentle distortion cannily mirrors the foreignness of the world Krisha is reentering. And a new strategy comes into play once she’s ensconced alone in her bedroom, as Shults plays hard and fast with the 180-degree rule to generate an additional layer of confusion after Krisha cracks open the tin containing her various pharmaceutical paraphernalia, with the final slow pan out from her face through the bedroom door making her disconnect from the situation she finds herself in complete.
Such comparative subtlety flies out the window, however, when a now drug-addled Krisha reenters the family fray, as a veritable deluge of new tricks are progressively unleashed to convey her mood. While the turkey is being prepared and various, largely anonymous family members cheer the big game playing on the television or mill around in another subtly distorting single shot, the camera now also jerks back and forth in reaction to any disturbance, as a hectic combination of piano and strings rattles away on the soundtrack. Soon Schults is swooping the audience through the garden alongside a group of running dogs, cutting to impromptu arm-wrestling contests, or practically nosediving into piles of chopped vegetables, as the previously established spatial and temporal coherence also begins to unravel. If the message behind this cacophonous mélange is that this is how the silver-maned Krisha perceives the world when she’s high, it’s been received loud and clear.
Yet while all this heavy-handed formal bravado does conjure up a convincingly nightmarish mood, it often feels oddly divorced from Krisha’s own subjectivity. Whether at the peaks of her intoxication or in the moments of comparative quiet between them, the roving camera only selectively takes on her perspective, as it’s equally willing to abandon her to listen in on conversations she’s not privy to or capture situations unrelated to her state. The resultant feeling is of being thrust into Krisha’s head one minute and pulled back out of it another, which creates another layer of disorientation that prevents rather than encourages identification.
The film’s overbearing style is in any case always in danger of overwhelming the mono-directional plot. The warping effect of the wide-angle lens often makes it hard to even properly identify the various family members who aren’t placed in the center of the frame, the roaring soundtrack and heady sound design frequently drowning out the dialogue, and the discontinuous editing actively preventing the family home from feeling like a tangible, real-life place. The emphasis on style over content is particularly evident when certain salient conversations are presented more conventionally, such as Krisha’s tentative attempt to reconnect with her son or a teary last-act exchange between her and her sister, both of which cannot help but feel leached of intensity when set against all the previous formal fireworks.
As day reaches evening and the amount of pills that Krisha has popped becomes untenable, the turkey (along with its attendant symbolism) drops to the floor, and a pre-programmed family confrontation finally kicks in, Krisha‘s fundamental problem snaps into place: When a protagonist’s trajectory is already crystal clear, relying on form to complicate that trajectory is a losing battle. Attacking the tired trope of the troubled woman might have made for a more interesting battle, yet Krisha‘s ostensible innovations aren’t aimed at challenging genuinely thorny conventions, but generating a suitably auspicious calling card for Shults, whose sheer willingness to throw everything but the kitchen sink at viewers is the sort of applicable skill that’s happily harnessed by Hollywood. It’s probably all just a question of which path you want to take: the road that leads to A Woman Under the Influence or the one that stops at Requiem for a Dream.