Spoiler warning: this article does include a discussion of the entire plot of Waves, which is currently in limited release. We recommend seeing it. Then come back and read the article.
Few films this year have overwhelmed audiences like Waves, which opens in theaters everywhere this Friday. It tells the story of a family’s descent into hell and back, which might as well describe the previous two films written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Waves is the third film in his trilogy about the fragility — and resilience — of family. In the film’s back half, a daughter types out and deletes a text to her parents: “I just want us to be a family again.” In his debut feature Krisha, the title character cries out: “I’ve earned a right to be at this table with my family.” And in It Comes At Night, a father warns his son: “You can’t trust anyone but family.” But what happens when that trust is broken? This is one of several questions explored by Shults in his first three films, a thematic trilogy packed to the brim with devastating performances, and an astonishing array of filmmaking techniques.
Ever since crashing onto the scene with his microbudget debut Krisha, a film starring his real-life family and filmed in his actual home, Shults has continued to explore humanity through its most basic social unit. Family is a powerful and yet strangely feeble force that ties us by both blood and circumstance. This trio of films put those ties through the wringer and explore how we can love our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters so deeply and yet hurt them in the deepest of ways. There is a prevailing sense of love and safety in these families at first, but Shults has an uncanny ear for the awful and regrettable things people would only say in the midst of a family argument. Within the family dynamic, Shults displays an obsession with communication breakdown.
There are ordinary but important visual trademarks that remain constant in each of Shults’ films. Family photos abound throughout, with cutaways and hallway shots giving us a glimpse at the history behind each family. Although his families inevitably fall into tearful and cataclysmic shouting matches, they are first seen sharing meals and at play together (even in Night, the family finds time to play board games). Shults’ upper-middle-class background comes through in a recurring trend of large, two-story homes that double as interesting cinematic spaces and oppressive fortresses in which the characters stew over their emotions. Cats and dogs roam through the house in each film, and technology is presented as a means of anxiety (Waves), comic relief (Krisha), or entirely absent (Night).
What keeps these familiar aspects fresh and exciting in each film is a constant change of scenery. Krisha is set in the suburbs of Texas, marked by Southern-tongued relatives as well as redbrick houses with spacious backyards. It Comes At Night moves the action to the overgrown forests of northern New York. Waves, of course, is set on the shoreline of Florida, where palm trees, manatees, and ever-present swamp noises provide a surreal backdrop to the film’s heavy emotional events.
While wide-eyed in their scope, all three of Shults’ films are portraits of characters struggling to stay afloat amidst incredibly stressful circumstances. Krisha follows an estranged woman (Krisha Fairchild) returning to her family after a decade, just in time for Thanksgiving. It Comes At Night zeroes in on a father, mother, and son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., respectively) struggling to maintain their home in the aftermath of a mass epidemic. The two halves of Waves follow a brother and sister (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Taylor Russell) as they deal with love and pain on either side of an unthinkable tragedy. These dire situations seem insurmountable to the characters, inducing anxiety that leads them to destructive and self-sabotaging acts.
It is in that self-destruction that Shults showcases a fascination with the human body and its ailments. Krisha wears a bandage to hide a missing finger and relies on an assortment of prescription pills. Her fear of old age is heightened when she fails to be recognized by her mother who is in the throes of dementia. It Comes At Night presents an allegory for cancer as a Bubonic Plague-like force of death, its characters in a constant state of fear that they too shall come down with it, shielding themselves with ominous-looking gas masks. And in Waves, high school senior Tyler begins to spiral after a wrestling injury ruins his shoulder, putting him in a sling that comes to symbolize his loss of control. Most interesting in the back half of Waves is a callback to the opening shot of Night: an old man on the doorstep of death, peering deep into the lens.
There is a prevailing sense of anger and anxiety in all three films. Krisha is unable to carry the emotional guilt of having abandoned her family years ago, and spoils a shot at redemption by returning to her old coping mechanisms. In Night, the union of two families joining to survive the apocalypse together is broken when Paul (Joel Edgerton) allows his paranoia and distrust to take over, enabling him to wipe out an entire family. In Waves, Tyler cannot cope with the loss of his future, and allows his pent-up rage to directly harm his girlfriend and leave a horrible aftermath for his family. What Waves does differently, however, is give his little sister Emily a chance that no other protagonist in this trilogy has been given: redemption. Through hard emotional work and forgiveness, she is able to move past the fear and anger into a new world of empathy and understanding.
Perhaps the most striking arc of Shults’ trilogy is his growth as a visual storyteller, and his continuing collaboration with cinematographer Drew Daniels. Shults introduced many of his trademark visual flourishes with Krisha, including dread-inducing tracking shots, extreme close-ups of faces and a roving Steadicam unafraid to shift to handheld. One of the most consistent hallmarks of the trilogy is the ever-shifting aspect ratio, a popular technique from this decade that Shults has nevertheless made his own as a way of invoking anxiety, shame and fear in his characters. In both Krisha and Waves, the frame closes in from fullscreen to wide once the characters begin feeling the world closing in around them; they then snap into the boxy 4:3 ratio when the characters become trapped by irreversible decisions. It Comes At Night starts in the wide format, already in a claustrophobic mood, before slowly tightening even further as the events of the film worsen.
There is a voyeuristic streak throughout this trilogy, reflected through heavy use of zooms and foreground action. In Krisha, we are observing the house from the perspective of an outsider; Krisha eavesdrops and spies on her family, worrying they may be talking about her or the many secrets left unspoken between them. In It Comes At Night, teenage son Travis spends his nights in the attic, listening to conversations between his parents or their new guests; one of the film’s most striking shots is him peering through a door at the man his father just tied to a tree. When the shit hits the fan in the third act of Night, Travis is left behind in the bedroom, listening to the horrible muffled sounds of arguments from behind the door. This is mirrored in Waves, where both siblings are seen in their own scenes listening to their parents argue in another room. What might be the most terrifying shot in Waves is of a drunk and heartbroken Tyler stalking his ex-girlfriend through a strobe-lit party, watching in a jealous rage.
An overarching rhythm in both editing and music take center stage in Shults’ work, with each of his films attuned to a very specific tempo. While most of Krisha’s runtime is occupied by long and stark one-takes, it is full of montages frantically edited to Brian McOmber’s eerie, string-heavy score. Shots of family life and Thanksgiving preparation are stitched together in abstract stretches of mood and atmosphere, and Shults’ fascination with diegetic music shines through when a Nina Simone track is put on the record player. Night, which takes place in a world devoid of life, is subtle and much more lethargic in its presentation. While the film is patiently edited to create maximum tension, it too explodes into frantic cutting by its final minutes, cutting back and forth between families and grief-stricken faces as the worst has come to pass. And of course, Waves finds Shults in the mindset of a teenager: a wild, bass-heavy, ADHD-stricken editing style that immerses us in the fragile and overwhelming experience of its two young characters. There to dictate the editing beats is a modern-day jukebox soundtrack blaring through car speakers and iPhones, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross providing their most experimental score yet to fill in the spaces.
Trey Edward Shults’ films are full of ghosts. His films and their characters are haunted by lost loves, lost family members, and lost time from before their first frames. Not explicitly broken down in this article is the immense amount of autobiography Shults has injected into these films, but it is not hard to see that these stories come from deep and painful memories. The lead matriarch of Krisha is perhaps too far gone in her addiction and guilt to ever make amends for the time she wasted away from her son. Night ends with a shot of a mother and father at the dinner table, the empty seat between them serving as a brutal reminder of the son — and last drop of humanity — they have just lost. The siblings in Waves can’t even remember the mother they lost to an overdose when they were children, but the trauma reverberates through them regardless. And the second half of Waves might be Trey’s most devastating use of an absent loved one yet, with younger sister Emily suddenly thrown into a life without her brother on the other side of their shared bathroom.
These are difficult films to watch, immersing us in worlds filled with rage, regret, broken promises, and disease. But Shults is a humanist, and even in his bleakest moments, he offers us a glimpse at what these families strive for: love and understanding. Because in their absence, fear and anger take control, breaking down the communication needed for any family to exist peacefully. The dichotomy between these sides of humanity are everything to this trilogy: it comes through in every interaction, every missed connection, every argument, hell, even in a Tyler the Creator needle drop (“I fucking hate you, but I love you”). It helps cement this that with Waves, Shults ends his trilogy on the most literal interpretation of that push and pull. At the close of a first half full of fury and resentment, a second act awaits — one marked instead by vulnerability and hope, and the thought that maybe all it takes to escape pain is to reach out and forgive.