The rustic, lyrical sophomore feature of writer-director Josephine Decker, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely proves as slippery and elusive a film as its characters do to one another. A work of atmospheric dread enhanced through loose editing and heightened colours and sound design, it opens with a sensual female voice discussing an unknown lover – “But the way my lover opened and closed my legs, the way my lover folded and unfolded me into my lover’s breast, my lover knows how to love me” – over the image of a perturbed, barking dog, this coming right after footage of a father and adult daughter playing in a field with a headless chicken, each with the exuberance of running puppies. What follows rarely deviates from that enigmatic prologue’s register.
That father is Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), who lives on a rural Kentucky farm with daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub), a curious lass filled with unexplored desires (“I would have a baby right now if Daddy would let me”). The latter takes an apparent shine to hired hand Akin (Joe Swanberg), a worker brought in for the summer who seems similarly captivated by the young woman’s offbeat demeanour and sometimes very overt flirtations. The curmudgeonly, bullying Jeremiah isn’t keen on the rather sheepish Akin even when he isn’t getting hints of his daughter’s attraction to the man, nor the seemingly inevitable outcome of that desire.
Akin rather conveniently removes his wedding ring before arriving for work, and neglects to mention his wife and child at all. That is, until his wife, Drew (Kristin Slaysman), decides to drop by for a visit one night that summer. And then things take a particularly dark turn. Well, darker for a film that’s already had a seduction involving an amphibian’s head being gnawed off. It’s a film where ethereal sensuality is entangled with predatory, bestial menace; thou may be mild and lovely, but there are equal amounts of wild and creepy.
With her psychosexual thriller, one impressively claustrophobic despite the vast expanses of land regularly on screen, Decker throws conventional narrative wisdom out the window for a more impressionistic riff on an erotic power play triangle (there are certainly strong hints that Jeremiah may not just be Sarah’s father). Its visual language continuously shifts through multiple perspectives and realms of consciousness, going not only from Akin to Sarah to Jeremiah, but even to the point of view of one of the farm’s animal residents during a notable foray into flashback territory. The closest film it may resemble in terms of cinematography and editing flow is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, though with the considerably different backdrop of Kentucky in comparison to Carruth’s largely suburban sci-fi; that foray into the mind of a farm creature certainly recalls Upstream Color in a way too, even if Decker chooses a cow instead of a pig.
Molly Herron and Jeff Young’s haunting string-based score is another memorable plus in the film’s favour, with the combination of the music and Ashley Connor’s cinematography creating a sense of woozy sedation in the viewer, even when proceedings venture into horror territory, the exact details of which shall remain unspoiled here. The loose veering from the erotic to the nightmarish can make parts of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely seem somewhat garbled, but the overall lasting impression is that this is one of the strongest, most striking American Gothic works of recent memory.
– Josh Slater-Williams