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5 Ways This Thanksgiving Drama Looks And Feels Like A Horror Movie

The tense, terrific debut Krisha is no Home for the Holidays.

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Like most movies set at Thanksgiving, Trey Edward Shults's directorial debut Krisha is about a dysfunctional family gathering to eat and air out past grievances over the holiday. Unlike most movies set at Thanksgiving, Krisha, which is now playing in limited release, is suffused with dread from the moment its main character — an addict who is trying hard to hold on to her sobriety — shows up at the door. It's the rare drama with all the sickening suspense of a horror movie, sustained by an exceptional lead performance and a director who puts us in the head of a woman who desperately wants to hold things together for one evening. Here's a look at some of the ways Krisha melds genres.

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1. Krisha opens with a woman staring at the camera. Staring down the camera, really, looking right at the audience with a combination of challenge and fear, while the score screeches balefully. She's the title character, and, like most of the people who appear in the movie, she's played by one of writer-director Trey Edward Shults's relatives — his aunt, Krisha Fairchild.

In the next scene, in the bright light of a Texas day, we get to see Krisha in a less abstract fashion: a sixtysomething in flowing, hippie-ish garb, the black sheep of a family nervously reunited after a decade-long absence during which she was dealing with addiction. But floating context-free against the dark in that first scene, with the lighting emphasizing her haunted eyes and every hard-won line on her face, she's totally unsettling, a witch in the night.

This may be a movie about a fractured family coming together for a holiday, the setup of just about every Thanksgiving feature ever made, but Krisha makes clear in that first shot that its characters aren't going to simply hug things out over helpings of green bean casserole.

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2. Krisha's missing half a finger. It's an injury that's never explained, though it happened recently enough for her to wear a bandage, which she at one point removes in order to rub cream onto the nub. The missing digit itself is not nearly as ominous as the fact that no one in the family asks what happened — whether it was due to an accident or illness, or if she's in pain. Either they all know what happened and it's too uncomfortable for anybody to bring up, or the wound is so in line with what they'd expect out of Krisha that it's not even worth comment.

Either possible scenario illuminates Krisha's past in ways that require no dialogue, in ways that are just as eloquent as the box of prescription meds (labeled "KEEP OUT") that she plunks in the bathroom. They allow scenes in which she dices ingredients for the stuffing for the turkey — the sounds amped up, the slices made percussive by the editing — to become something totally nerve-racking. Krisha isn't careful, with herself or with other people, but she is trying, trying so hard.

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3. The camera stalks Krisha through the house. The house, spacious and suburban, is the only location in which Krisha takes place, over one unbearably claustrophobic day. Everything about the filmmaking reflects its main character's turbulent interior. Krisha is so twitchy that someone grabbing Tupperware from nearby plays like a jump scare. The sound of a blender and the shouts emitting from family members watching a ball game on TV blare like alarms, like chaos threatening the cool Krisha insists she's embraced. The bickering of a couple and some good-natured arm wrestling are cut together to feel like the start of a fight that never happens.

The movie creates a sense of agitated anxiety to match Krisha's own. She yearns so badly for things to go smoothly that she basically wills disaster into existence. And the camerawork from cinematographer Drew Daniels is relentless, hunting her down like the doom she suspects is inevitable, tracking down dark hallways and traveling low against the ground like a restless animal, closing in on her like the eyes she imagines are always on her. In the conversation she has with Trey (played by Shults himself), above, the camera slowly closes in on her as she tries to create a bond with him; she seriously miscalculates, and she's left alone in the frame, devastated.

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4. Everyone's smiling too carefully. Long before Krisha's complicated history with her family is brought to light, there's clear tension in each calculated display of enthusiasm. Everyone at the house is brightly cheerful in welcoming her, like a crowd greeting someone who's just awoken from a years-long coma (though they all seem to hold their breath when Trey walks in). Krisha's sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) even trusts her to be in charge of cooking the turkey, at Krisha's request; and then when Krisha becomes frazzled at the sight of the giant bird, Robyn reminds her, “You wanted to do it," more an offer to let her off the hook than taking her to task.

Krisha arrives toting all sorts of baggage that everyone except for Doyle (Bill Wise) ignores. And it's Doyle, Krisha's caustic brother-in-law, who punctures the pretense in a conversation that slides slowly from friendly joshing to brutal accusations. It's Doyle who asks where she has been all these years, prodding at her defensive new-age speak, demanding she account for herself. "You are heartbreak incarnate, lady — you are a leaver," he spits, and while it's not the thing that pushes Krisha over the edge, it's more evidence of the darkness lurking below the fragile normalcy everyone else is working to maintain.

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5. Krisha becomes the monster in her own story. The question throughout Krisha isn't if its main character will break, but when. The movie is resonant as a portrayal of an addict in the way it puts us in her shoes to reveal that, while she understands the gravity of her visit (which may be her last chance at a relationship with her family), its importance is the very reason she’s going to fuck it up, as stress piles up and gives her an overwhelming urge to self-medicate. When Krisha does crack a wine bottle in secret, downing its contents like she's taking an antidote after being dosed with poison, the music gentles, the jittery pace slows, she floats out to rejoin the party with a numbed smile on her face, and you understand why everything looks better to her after belting a few drinks.

Krisha's as exasperating as she is sympathetic. She's a liar; she has tendencies toward self-pity. She thinks of herself as freer than her square relatives, and she's prone to lashing out — for example, as she leaves a voicemail for her partner at home, she tells him "I didn’t mean what I said," as though he should know that whatever harsh words she'd unloaded on him earlier don't "count." But she's also struggling with addiction in a way that no one else in that house can understand. Krisha's heartbreaking, but it also has the voluptuousness of a slasher movie: The stakes aren't whether the characters survive, but whether any of their relationships will.

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