What's the opposite of getting your ducks in a row? Letting the ducks go careening wildly every which way? And maybe letting a pack of dogs attack them, too?

In breakthrough filmmaker Trey Edward Shults' artfully unnerving indie drama Krisha, the title character, a chronic mess, arrives at her sister's house. It is Thanksgiving, and Krisha (the director's aunt, Krisha Fairchild) has been invited back into the fold she long ago quit in a storm of hurt and betrayal.

She assures everyone that she has those proverbial ducks sensibly aligned, but it doesn't take long to see what part of the problem was, and is: In the bathroom upstairs, Krisha unlocks a box and downs a fistful of pharmaceuticals.

"You are heartbreak incarnate," Doyle (Bill Wise), her chainsmoking, Southern-fried relation, tells her amid the yelps of the canines chasing around the backyard. "You are a leaver. You are an abandoneer."

And now the abandoneer has returned, promising to prepare a humongous turkey for the multi-generational gathering. Chopping and dicing, Krisha goes at it, between breaks for cigarettes, more pills, and an intense aside with her long-estranged, now-grown son (played by Shults).

Disarming, alarming, and more than a little impressive, Shults' movie was shot in his mother's Texas home, and the thing plays like a cross between Eugene O'Neill and a slasher pic. (It's cut like one; the soundtrack makes you feel jumpy like one.)

The real Krisha inhabits her namesake with the kind of intensity Gena Rowlands brought to the clutch of emotionally rattling pieces she made with, and for, her husband, John Cassavetes. It's more than apt that Shults' Krisha won the John Cassavetes prize last month (for the best film made under $500,000) at the Independent Film Spirit Awards.

A study in family dysfunction and the damage wrought by someone lost in a maze of addiction, Krisha may go on a little longer than you'd want, but then, its title character is the kind of houseguest who stays longer than you'd want her to - so even the postscript confrontations and apologies feel right.

Shults is a filmmaker to watch: This debut feature builds to a crescendo of calamity and chaos, his edits are kitchen-knife deadly, and he manages to eke horror and dread from a long, loping Nina Simone song. It's the perfect accompaniment.



Directed by Trey Edward Shults. With Krisha Fairchild, Robyn Fairchild, Trey Edward Shults, and Bill Wise. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.