Simmering with sensuality, the second feature from NYC filmmaker Josephine Decker enraptures with vivid imagery while establishing a burning fire of abstract connotations. With such a powerful concoction of unconventional narrative techniques, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely dares the viewer to touch the flame; a 95 minute summer poem of suppressed emotions and blistering paranoia.
As of this moment, I have yet to see Decker’s directorial debut, Butter on the Latch, but it’s likely that I will by end of day. After the first watch of Thous Wast Mild and Lovely, I decided to write without any floating images clouding my perspective, but then again, it’s easy to cerebrally drift away given the literary qualities of the film. I can imagine Joe Swanberg’s Akin as the long lost brother of Cal Trask (James Dean) from East of Eden or Sophie Traub’s Sarah as a modern day Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood) from Splendor in the Grass. In fact, I found myself thinking, “That’s what I wanted to feel after watching James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.”
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A country home is the setting for Thous Wast Mild and Lovely, and a collection of vibrant greens and blues open the film. However, one essential color of Decker’s palette — red — steals the scene as Sarah rolls around in the grass with her father Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet). A scarlet sash holds her clothing in place, while a lighter shade (chicken blood) soaks her outfit during a playful game of headless-chicken stabbing.
Soon, a new farmhand (Swanberg) arrives, and his approach down a country road is paralleled with images of seemingly calm farm animals and preceded by a shot of a snarling canine. Solidifying the idea that Akin may be less than trustworthy, he removes his wedding ring before meeting the country bumpkins Sarah and Jeremiah. With the alluring but mysterious daughter instantly earning his attention, Akin discovers that a long workday may be the least of his troubles. Of course, the possessive father begins to notice the awkward behavior and attempts to pull out the truth. Through rain and shine, the trio begin to form an understanding, but the arrival of Akin’s wife (Kristin Slaysman) complicates the rural mind games, and reality drops down with the force of a horse’s stomp.
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Decker’s camera is often out of focus in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but somehow it seems to make sense. I’ll never forget watching Elia Kazan’s East of Eden in college and admiring the slanted camera angle of a dinnertime conversation between Cal and his father, which represents their tumultuous relationship. Decker has that ability to wield a sharp cinematic knife. She never allows the viewer to become content with a traditional narrative; she rattles the senses with gorgeous time-lapse footage, bleak interior shots, softly spoken voice over and outstanding sound design.
While Swanberg always brings a sense of comic relief to his characters, he’s equally capable of portraying a distressed personality — someone who may appear suspicious but could simply be lonely or grieving. In Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Swanberg’s Akin masturbates repeatedly to relieve his tension and walks around in a slumber; he’s not quite a zombie but definitely close to being devoured. On the other hand, Sarah radiates with exuberance, and Traub plays her beautifully. There’s something slithering and sexy about Sarah; she appears to be the ideal country girl and carries herself with a passionate energy that has yet to be unleashed on the world. However, such raw sensuality and lust for life can result in a shattered psyche under the wrong guidance. And that’s one of the secrets of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Who has the most control? Sarah speaks of her lover, but an ideal and reality are two separate things.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.