As the credits roll on Waves, against the blue, bright promise of an open sky, Alabama Shakes’s “Sound and Color” spills forth from the soundtrack. It’s a fitting choice, director Trey Edward Shults winking at himself, as the track could have pulled double-duty and been this film’s title. The director’s previous two features, Krisha and It Comes at Night, were both exercises in tension building, with the etchings of thriller informing a drama and a horror framework, respectively. That impulse remains in Waves, especially in its first half, but this time tension acts as support rather than conceit. Shults here opts for more externalized ways to set the tone — the aforementioned sound and color. Waves is awash in gauzy pastels: neon orange nails alight against a bruise-blue dusk sky, interiors are frequently saturated in the muted glow of uplighting and strobes, and nighttime compositions are dotted with brightly-hued halos. The probing, pursuing camera of Shults’s previous films is exchanged for more affected flips and pirouettes. Sonically, proceedings are teed up by musical cues, the soundtrack a Pitchfork-approved playlist consisting of Animal Collective, Kanye West, Sigur Ros, and Kendrick Lamar — all utilized to heighten narrative or emotional beats. So, for a while, after a while, Waves begins to feel like a self-serious exercise in melodramatic indulgence, building toward a first half apogee that’s a little too after-school-special.
But this is a film of two halves, and the second act plays like an extended denouement, a study in post-tragedy, telling the story that is too often, in film and in life, glossed over in the aftermath of the sensational. To that end, the musical choices mellow in tenor, the visuals become brighter and less menacing. The film’s first hour stacks the deck – its second hour abandons the cards entirely. This ultimately feels like less of a gambit than an organic inevitability, the dichotomous parts so informing each other as to necessitate a reclassification of this as diptych cinema. What must be wrestled with, then, is the messaging in the film’s first half. The restrained beauty of Waves’ culminating section, foregoing any bombast and smartly allowing the film’s only climax to exist at the halfway point, is instructive to its emotional core, but it also emphasizes that issues of mental illness, internalized patriarchy, and the complicated legacy of black male excellence are largely utilized as plot fodder and furtherance rather than contributing anything meaningful to the discourse. And yet, conceptually, this is a snapshot version of saga cinema, capturing, with heavy style, a brief period in the collective joy and trauma of a family, a development the film’s second half rapturously conveys even if the knottiness of the whole has come just a bit undone by that point.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.