Time Out says
A golden boy loses his footing in Trey Edward Shults's adrenalized South Florida tragedy.
It’s taken him three films but over the course of those indies, writer-director Trey Edward Shults has ruined Thanksgiving (2015’s excruciating psychodrama Krisha) and spoiled the world with plague (the majestically paranoid It Comes at Night). Now, with Waves, he links a hard-working Florida family’s ruination to a second half of almost cosmic forgiveness. All of his films feel like personal exorcisms—Shults is best described as a non-supernatural horror director—but his new one feels like a true breakthrough, the kind of movie in which a confident young orchestrator tries to make larger sense of things. Waves shudders with ambition and nervy style; it never quite relaxes out of its harrowing first hour but the longer it stretches out, the more humane it feels.
Shults has a signature shot, his camera rotating like the searching eye of a lighthouse—or a police siren—and Waves exploits it beautifully. It’s how we meet high school wrestler Tyler (It Comes at Night’s Kelvin Harrison Jr., impressively precise with his character’s steep decline), cruising in his car with his girlfriend. Shults takes in the golden moment with his swirling camera: Tyler is swaddled in middle-class comforts, along with the crush of expectations. Several bad things happen to him, a few of which are made infinitely worse by his own impulsive actions and confusion. Waves turns this descent into an extended cringe of Job–worthy misfortunes: By the time Shults returns to that spinning camera trick, Tyler crying in the bathtub cradling a cheeseburger, we are spiraling down the drain with him.
And still it gets worse. There’s a touch of cautionary overdoneness to Shults’s story (goosed by the nauseating synth drones of The Social Network’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who turn everything they work on into a dark fable). The wrestling career ends, the relationship ends, the pills come out, and the reversal of fortune gives you whiplash. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” says Tyler’s father (This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown, taut with concern), but apart from that one line, Waves doesn’t play like a statement on race, so much as an indictment of the Kanye-scored, dumped-via-text pressure cooker of growing up today. (Shults, it should be mentioned, is white.)
Carefully, I'll stress that Waves is far from being over; its second section is where the movie widens into a kind of redemption. Shaken by her circumstances, Tyler’s sullen younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), blooms in the attentions of a sweet dork of a boyfriend (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges), and not so suddenly, this universe seems like less of a death trap. Shults finds a new register in his technique as well, closer to the actors, less oppressive. Waves, like all of his films, is about family, but this time, it’s not a portrait of domestic suffocation. The artistic evolution Shults is undergoing makes him as exciting as anyone at work—he’s as sharp as the young Darren Aronofsky, and his heart is only growing larger.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Sterling K. Brown