In just three films, writer/director Trey Edwards Shults has shown a big desire to explore the demons that haunt people’s lives. Sometimes they can be literal, as in the supernatural It Comes at Night. But more often, as in that film, his first film, Krisha, and his latest, Waves, those demons are metaphorical, fighting their way to the surface of even seemingly stable people.
The family at the center of Waves — father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), stepmother Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry), son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) — appear to be living an ideal life. Ronald and Catharine run a business that affords them luxuries most people can’t afford, and Tyler, a star on his school’s wrestling team, has a fun and loving girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie).
But just below the surface are cracks, mostly in the relationship of Ronald and Tyler. Though well-intentioned, Ronald pushes his son to make sacrifices to succeed, which in turn causes Tyler to make poor decisions, like taking opioids to mask a shoulder injury. Little by little those cracks get bigger and the pressure builds until an explosion takes place that affects the entire family.
From the very first moment of the film, Shults demonstrates a mastery of storytelling, introducing his characters in a whirlwind of camera movements that sets a fantastic tone. The kinetic nature of the title sequence is continued for much of the rest of the film, with Shults shifting aspect ratios in the film to reinforce the mood of certain scenes.
The result is both brutal and beautiful to watch. The troubles of the family are difficult to handle, but the cinematography of Drew Daniels and the staging of the scenes continually draw you in. The story goes in many unexpected directions, and that unpredictability serves it well.
Also maintaining its grip throughout is the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Since their Oscar-winning score for 2010’s The Social Network, the Nine Inch Nails bandmates have been in demand to score other films, and they deliver another doozy here. Their atmospheric music, combined with a variety of hip hop songs, complements the mood of the film. It’s subtle when it needs to be, but also overpowering at just the right moments.
The film contains stunning performances across the board. Harrison and Russell are given the bulk of the load, and the young actors are more than up to the task. Harrison is especially devastating in his depiction of a teenager going into a spiral. Brown, as he’s proven multiple times in recent years, is one of the finest actors working today, and nothing he does here dispels that notion.
Waves is both an emotionally rewarding and shattering experience. No one would want to confront the demons that the family in this film have to face, but Shults has made a film journey that’s well worth taking.