Some time ago I discovered Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch on Fandor—whether it was through Twitter or friends I can’t remember—and found myself fond of her style, but not too taken away by a film that, in fairness, I might have assumed would have been more explicitly queer in nature. But it did prepare me for what to expect from the filmmaker in terms of stylistic approach, and with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Decker has finally clicked with me in just the right way. Less mumblecore in its execution than the film that precedes it in her oeuvre, this is still the kind of film that meanders comfortably until it explodes, but it’s that almost perfectly paced journey that makes it as wildly engrossing as it is.
It’s arguable that Terrence Malick’s ponderous naturalism is a big influence on Decker; there’s a feeling of Badlands among other works lurking in the distance of this positively modern film about unfamiliar territory. Certain shots may come across as indulgent to some, but a film with as many beautiful handheld shot compositions as this deserves discussion. Though much of Mild and Lovely will come across as indulgent, with even the site’s synopsis being something to keep viewers not fond of the strange and ambiguous away: “When Akin arrives at the farm, he finds his job. This is what he expected to find. When Sarah opens her legs, she finds someone watching. This is what she expected to find. When Jeremiah opens his mouth, frightening things come out of it. This has come to be expected. But what happens by the creek next to the cow. This was not expected.”
When Decker plays to the film’s thriller beats, she does so marvelously. A segment where Joe Swanberg masturbates in a shed, in particular, is impacting in its editing, intercutting his private activity with almost surreal images of Sophie Traub in various states of undress, an unsettling score punctuating the moment. And while there’s plenty of those in the film, she brings that same energy into some of the most low-key moments, with uncomfortable glances spread nicely over dinner conversations between any number of people.
It’s in the dialogue where we find the most unnecessary material stuffed into this weird little film, working best when it’s focusing on making things as grimy as possible in the farmland. The romanticized voiceover, though, could and should have been better utilized as a contrast against the brutal realities of the world. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is arguably the kind of film that might have been better executed by playing with sound and silence more than outright conversation, though some of the more piercing sounds worked into the sound mix work against it. “It’s hard not to want a man with so much silence in him,” one character says of Swanberg’s almost impenetrable Akin and it’s positively perfect to describe his performance as well.
Swanberg’s never felt so natural in a film, be it his own or someone else’s, and his performance placed alongside Traub’s works wonders. Their chemistry isn’t so much palpable as it is subtle, always leaving one to wonder what the hell they see in each other other than the fact that they’re two individuals trapped together, while simultaneously presenting itself as something magical happening by chance to these two aimless human beings. Even the exterior forces in their lives, Sarah’s father and Akin’s wife, are drawn to them in ways both romantic and dangerous, something not uncommon in good sensually-based storytelling.
And that’s precisely what Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is: very good storytelling about sexual fantasies and the dangers that lie in expressing such things. At times shifting wildly to dark humor rather than anything particularly romantic, dramatic, or thrilling, it’s a sophomore feature that packs a hell of a punch. Josephine Decker has made a film that isn’t going to be wildly adored by any means, but establishes her as a filmmaker with a knack for understanding the ways of slow-burn storytelling and how to manipulate it for just the right pay-off.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is available to stream on Fandor and for rental or purchase on Amazon.
Directed by Josephine Decker; written by Josephine Decker and David Barker; starring Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub, Robert Longstreet and Kristin Slaysman; 78 minutes.