An equally repelling and attractive gothic thriller.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Sounds of aggressive screaming and laughter. A father and daughter chase each other. The daughter holds a decapitated chicken, chasing her father down and smearing its blood on his shirt. They roll around on the ground before the daughter goes back into their farmhouse. The handheld camera moves around the entire time, eventually drifting out of focus as it views the surrounding area. Only the scene doesn’t end at this point, as one might expect. The daughter begins narrating about her hypothetical lover, and the camera stares down a growling dog nearby. It’s a scene that’s bold, unique, vibrant, awkward and unsettling all at once, and a good introduction of what’s to come in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
The farmer in the opening is Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub). The two have a bizarre relationship, one with heavy implications of something incestuous, although director/co-writer Josephine Decker never clears up that ambiguity. The lack of answers extends to the third major character in this story; Akin (Joe Swanberg), a new worker on the farm hired for the summer. He removes his wedding ring, hiding the existence of his wife and child from Jeremiah and Sarah, and the reason for his being there might have to do with a past tragedy. Jeremiah, acting as an intimidating, masculine force in opposition to Akin’s meek, quiet composure (something Jeremiah repeatedly brings up as an insult), immediately notices the tan line on Akin’s ring finger. He knows Akin and Sarah are attracted to each other, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
That’s because darkness lingers just under the surface of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. When all three characters sit down for dinner one night, Jeremiah tells a story about how people have two wolves constantly fighting inside them: one representing good, and one representing evil. Before he can say which wolf ends up winning he gets cut off, the story never finishing. In Decker’s film, malevolence tends to have the upper hand. Decker’s portrayal of her characters’ dark desires is where her talents shine considerably, showcasing a truly distinct voice in modern indie filmmaking. Ashley Connor’s excellent cinematography has the camera roving from one place to another, frequently switching perspectives as well as stylistic techniques (the film’s highlight: a series of flashbacks through the POV of a cow). Editing also plays a major role in creating the unique, dreadful mood. Decker, along with co-editors David Barker and Steven Schardt, edit the film in a way that feels impulsive, tied more to emotions than logic. The style will inevitably earn comparisons to Terrence Malick, except Decker’s lyricism has a fascinating perverseness to it.
While Decker’s skills at showing intangible urges and emotions show great talent, the same can’t be said once tensions rise to the surface. The arrival of Akin’s wife, Drew (Kristin Slaysman), leads to a climax turning the film into something akin to a gothic horror. The shift is a bit of a stumble for the film, with certain characters behaving in ways feeling too drastic and bizarre compared to everything beforehand. It’s a step taken a bit too far in one direction, but that appears to be Decker’s MO. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely isn’t afraid to go further, delving into ideas and choices that can easily repel just as much as it attracts. Some moments are absurd and laughable, while others generate a sublime beauty. It’s a risky mode of filmmaking, but it’s one that delivers truly exciting results.