Can A Movie Be Conscious? The Excruciating Reality Of Krisha

The brutal and sometimes overwhelming portrait of addiction shows that a good movie has a mind of its own

Talking about whether Trey Edward Shults’s debut feature, Krisha, is good or bad is as irrelevant as making those same declarations about a person. More than good, more than bad, there is something about Krisha that feels alive.

In a way, Krisha — a home-for-Thanksgiving movie about one sixty-something woman’s struggle with addiction and the family she alienates — belongs to the horror genre, but it’s not always clear if the threat is a monster or a haunted house, and as we unravel what exactly has rotted the core of this seemingly unremarkable family, we are pushed into a perspective beyond what any of the characters can see. We’re not an investigator, exactly — the disaster, after all, is ongoing. But our eye is picking up clues, piecing together the causes behind the family’s dysfunction.

The movie starts off with a zoom into the manic eyes of its titular character Krisha, but once the film begins, we aren’t limited to what Krisha can see. Instead, our position as an outside presence in this story is made clear only after all of the pieces in the dollhouse have been placed.

At this point, we know that Krisha, an addict on the mend in her mid sixties, has returned home after a lengthy estrangement. We’ve seen her greet her family and start the job of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. We can see she’s fixated on Trey, who is related to her, though we’re never told exactly how. And by now we know that Krisha’s newfound serenity is maintained only by sheer will and a precarious hold on her self-prescribed medication.

Without warning, we see Krisha turning and pacing in a frenzy around the kitchen, looping a path over and over. The camera assumes the distortions of a wide angle lens, focusing only on Krisha at the center of the image as the edges of the frame stretch out of shape. The score takes up the sound of wood blocks, which hammer out an arrhythmic, not-quite-pitched tonal bed of anxiety. But just as we become comfortable with this image as a sign of Krisha’s mental state, we hear one of those wood-block-pounding drumsticks stop.

As Krisha makes her methodical circles around us, Trey stands up from his seat in the background and exits the room behind her. For a moment we, the camera, become the sun around which these planetary satellites orbit. Krisha and Trey circle us together, their steps in perfect pace, creating an image of choreographed harmony that remains underscored by the sounds of insistent mania.

When the image begins, we are inside Krisha, but by the time it ends, we are outside her. We perceive the shifts in Krisha’s mind as she unravels, but, unlike Krisha, we don’t lose sight of the environment in which she unravels. Instead we keep watch — her silent companion — while Krisha alienates each of her relations, one after the other. We maintain a sort of godlike awareness of both her action and her world’s equal and opposite reactions, and in the process we become not just the audience, but a participant in the action onscreen.

Of course, it’s possible to resist the pull of the screen, to remain the individual who sits in the theater, the rational actor who does not become possessed by the hovering presence of the camera that keeps sweeping around Krisha. But if you can abandon rationality — if you can let yourself succumb — then for at least the 80 minutes we spend in the theater, we occupy a consciousness that isn’t exactly our own.

If a film overwhelms the audience’s senses at the same time, are we occupying the same consciousness? What is it exactly that separates me from you, except that I occupy my body and you yours, and what does that matter when we’re sitting together in the same darkened theater absorbing the same sounds and sights together? Is it art or is it science that’s created inside the cinema?

In life, if you want someone to understand you, you can maybe choose the setting, you can maybe plan your words, but ultimately you can control little beyond yourself. But in filmmaking, the limits on control are removed. If you think about it, that people go to the movies at all is one of the great illogical mass phenomena of modern society. An audience pays to submit to an experience in which their movement is limited, their noses and mouths preoccupied with little more than popcorn and candy, for the privilege of letting a stranger manipulate what remains of their perception with a predetermined image that’s the result of months or years spent assembling, staging, performing, directing, and cutting. And a filmmaker willingly undertakes all that fuss just for the chance to communicate without interruption for a couple of hours through sight, sound, and time.

I suspect that it’s a tendency toward mind control that draws so many freaks (bless them) and egomaniacs (OK, bless them less) to the director’s chair. As an audience member, there are times when it feels overwhelming to be at the mercy of someone else’s vision, but I keep going the movies because I’m drawn to that too. If making a film is confessing a desire to connect, returning to the cinema is a confession too: I want to succumb.

Of course, the disturbance in watching Krisha only increases the more you learn about its production. Trey Edward Shults wrote, directed, edited, and sound-mixed the film based on an incident that happened in his own family, and he cast himself, his mother, his grandmother, and, most importantly, his own aunt as Krisha to recount it. The result is that the relationships onscreen feel real even as they delve deep into instability — and the presence that may or may not be possessing us feels more intimate than recent exercises in movie madness like Birdman or Whiplash. There’s nothing arbitrary about how we see Krisha. This isn’t filmmaking as a show. The sweeps and cuts of the camera in Krisha want to include you in the madness.

Krisha’s addiction pushes the action into the realm of disaster, but madness is present regardless of whether she’s in the room. We follow dogs as they chase a ball, Krisha’s nephews as they arm wrestle, Krisha’s niece and her husband as they flirt and tend to their newborn baby – all with the same distortions, all with the same manic energy as what seems to be disturbing Krisha. Maybe it’s family that drives you crazy. But maybe what’s crazy is the illusion of consciousness itself. After all, how can you rely on the authenticity of the soul if authenticity can be re-created with some mics and a camera?

Looking at the usual sequels, reboots, and franchise launches that studios have had to offer so far this year, it’s offensive to see multiplexes crowded with movies that cost a hundred times more than Krisha, while only delivering a fraction of its vitality. Once you’ve learned that a movie can push you to become another person, a bad movie becomes a dead movie. Why pay $15 for the job of reanimating someone’s corpse? A good movie has a mind of its own.