From the Archives: Waves uses visual economy to capture deep nuance

From the Archives: Waves uses visual economy to capture deep nuance

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

First with Krisha, then with It Comes at Night, writer/director Terry Edward Shults uses bombastic filmmaking to tell tales about family and all the struggles that come with being part of one. With his debut, he made a stream-of-consciousness Thanksgiving film that reckons with the effects of addiction on not just the addict, but those who love them. With his sophomore film, he explored the ticking time bomb a family can set for itself by resorting to black-and-white thinking. Both films employ many stylistic flourishes, most of which work surprisingly well coming from a director at the beginning of his career, a time when many young filmmakers like to announce themselves through visual flair. Fincher did it. Aronofsky did it. PTA did it. With time, these greats smoothed their stylistic edges and let their presence recede into the texture of the film, becoming stronger filmmakers as a result. As someone who has been following Shults since day one, it’s been a privilege to watch him follow a similar path. With Waves, his third and best film, the manic energy of Krisha meets the silent visual information dumps of It Comes At Night, resulting in a deeply nuanced, exceptionally crafted drama. It’s no exaggeration to say that Waves is one of the best (if not the best) movies of the year.

Waves does not follow a typical plot structure. Rather than leading into an inciting incident, the film plays as two separate movies sandwiching a central tragic event. For the first hour or so we follow the experiences of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he navigates his senior year of high school. He’s a star athlete, a solid student, and an all-around popular guy. When he’s not studying, he’s working out with his demanding father (Sterling K. Brown). When he’s not working out, he’s hanging out with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). It seems pretty normal at first, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that the pressures Tyler faces are significantly more pressing than they seem to outsiders. There’s a vague feeling of doom that persists from the outset, and as the looming tragedy nears, and we in the audience start to put the pieces together, the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The second half of the film follows Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell), as she and the rest of the family deal with the aftermath of what went down (I’m doing my best not to spoil). She’s a shy girl, nervous in social situations, self-conscious about her braces. As the younger sister of the school’s pride and joy, she was always able to fade into the background, but due to some supremely dark circumstances, she’s now been pushed to the forefront.

My assumption is that this structure is meant to amplify the concept of the title, illustrating the waves that ripple out from prominent events in one’s life. While this points to a deeply nuanced and thorough script (you won’t believe how deep it goes into the lives of so may supporting characters not mentioned here), it also prevents the film from congealing into something deeply resonant until it has completed. What I mean is that the tonal shift into the second half of the film is a bit jarring, especially given the intensity of the dividing moment, and this jarring feeling doesn’t fade until the credits roll and the film comes into view as a complete piece of art. This delayed gratification may prove deal breaking for some, but those who can savor it the way I did will find it to be downright masterful.

Both Harrison and Russell do impossibly good work bringing their characters to life, understanding so deeply how these people work that new plot revelations retroactively color previous moments in a new light at a pretty regular clip. By the end, we can look back at earlier scenes and read deeper into these characters with the gift of hindsight. This wouldn’t work if the performers were not operating at such a high level. The emotional profiles are so rich and detailed that if not for the heightened camerawork, one might think we covertly filmed a real family facing real troubles.


Yet despite the camera removing documentary realism from this startling emotional journey, what Shults imbues each frame with must be seen to be believed. Early scenes feature a camera running in a concentric circle around Tyler, illustrating the manic pressure he finds himself under. Later, the camera rotates outward from Emily’s point of view, following the same circular path, only now it highlights the world spinning out around her, divorced from control. Color, too, is employed to both suggest emotional beats, and to guide the eye to whatever on-screen detail is most pertinent to the plot. A highlight is a nighttime beach scene that matches an actress’s bright orange nail polish to the glow of city lights across the water. It’s simply stunning, evocative of Harmony Korine, but with the warmth and restraint of Andrea Arnold (kudos to cinematographer Drew Daniels). The visual economy is simply unbelievable. Not a moment is wasted. The camera is always delivering information, be it through capturing the events on screen, or through using the the visual language of cinema to invoke a feeling. This creates a unique moviegoing experience, where we in the audience constantly shift from fly-on-the-wall to active participant, fluidly becoming ingratiated into the story (lulled into a sense of belonging by the tremendous score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). Once you’re on board, it’s hard to get off. But why would you want to?


Waves opens today at the Ritz East.

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