In the sun-dappled, sweltering hills on a Kentucky farm, a minute shift in the pastoral chemistry is seemingly unnerving nature. This change in the air is not initially calamitous, but nevertheless felt, possibly subconsciously, by the entire environment. This interruption comes in the form of Akin (filmmaker/actor Joe Swanberg), a young farmhand whose presence upsets the delicate balance of harmony on the ranch of Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet of “Take Shelter”), a curmudgeonly old farmer and Sarah (Sophie Traub), his naïve and very peculiar young daughter. And perhaps the equilibrium of this idyllic setting is thrown because their relationship has something ineffably insalubrious hanging over it.
And so when Akin comes along to take up the job as the new farmhand, both parties reacts like disrupted molecules. The capricious and offbeat Sarah is intrigued and Jeremiah is immediately leery of the sheepish young man he taunts and abuses. And Akin, who takes off his wedding band the second he arrives for work (and conveniently doesn’t mention he has a wife and child) is also similarly captivated by the fetching young girl. As the offbeat narrative progresses—full of poetic, but obscure voice-over, time-lapse photography, oblique arty shots—Sarah’s flirtations grow, Akin’s desires begins to throb and Jeremiah’s mistrust begins to curdle into something much more sinister that doubt. As the movie’s sexual tensions and personal conflicts crescendo, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” swells into something much more uglier, mystifying and horrific than you’d expect. But for all its surprises, moments of shocking violence, interesting performances and expressively told stylistic devices, this inconsistent picture is far too ungainly for its own good. “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is bursting at the seams to articulate itself, but a thousand ideas thrown at the wall often makes for a garbled mess.
An arty sensual drama with woozy experimental flourishes “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” arguably has a split personality disorder; its dreamy, loose air soon evolves into a charged erotic thriller only then to morph into something more chaotic and nightmarishly psychosexual. It's ambitious, but habitually chokes under the weight of its various pretenses. Directed and co-written by Josephine Decker (her debut film “Butter On The Latch” is also in competition at the Berlin Film Festival which is quite the feat), “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” walks the fine razor’s edge of being sensually mysterious and frustratingly opaque and falls off and cuts itself often on its affectations. Occasionally told from the perspective of a cow (not joking) and featuring a childlike ambiguous sing-songy voice-over narrative from Sarah’s perspective (a POV that it seemingly abandons), "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" is also maddeningly precious at times too.
Erratically told, while Decker certainly has an vision and an eye, her problem lies with tone and not knowing when to say when to various arthouse conceits. Shot by indie DP Ashley Connor, the frequently beautiful cinematography which is often blurry and indirectly framed is initially striking, but quickly becomes tiresome (as if the focus puller was fired mid-shoot and the production continued regardless). And all of the film’s animated stylish postures tend to wear out their welcome fast. When “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” tries to be intimate, it becomes invasive with out-of-focus close-ups practically bumping alongside the actor’s face. When it attempts to be delicate, it becomes affected. While the movie’s visual language has a strong grasp of the sensuous, a corporeal uneasiness and a tactile anxiety, much of its admirable qualities are undone by awkward and unformed aesthetics (a would-be terrifying dream sequence telegraphing moments in the third act, is seemingly stolen from a 17-year-old Salvador Dali’s storyboards with their random shocking images, jump cuts and more, and it fails to impress).
More vexing, "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" is recurrently ill-defined and doesn’t work to explain any of its character motivations: Jeremiah is prickishly suspicious and the ill at ease, while socially maladjusted Akin wants to be an adulterer from minute one. But the movie doesn’t seem interested in explaining or exploring the why. In a better film, you’d admire not being spoonfed every character detail, but Decker’s movie is exasperatingly vague on many levels. In the near loathsome and volatile third act—sex and violence break out haphazardly—Decker goes for broke and misses her mark to an almost infuriating degree. A masturbation sequence borders on the amateurish. A sexual threesome in the movie is baffling, comes out of nowhere and much like other parts of the movie is barely explained. Decker’s picture has jarring style to spare, but rarely is it lovely or mild.
Co-starring Kristin Slaysman, Matt Orme and Geoff Marslett, additionally, "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Early on, the picture purports to be about the sensual and enigmatic inner life of a woman, but her POV is soon dropped in favor of its genre trappings and twists. Scored by Brooklyn musician Molly Herron and Jeff Young, swirling cellos flutter around like flies taunting cows and while the dissonant and beautiful noise makes for an atmosphere of blissful desire and amplifies the geographical terror and unease, it also over does it.
Too impulsive for its own good, for all its patience-testing problems, "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" also sort of announces the arrival of a new filmmaker. Perhaps one that’s far from having found her footing yet, but with a few years of patience, wisdom and knowledge of when to pull back, could evolve into an interesting director to watch. While Decker can’t stick the landing—her simmering movie’s boiling point is a near contrived dealbreaker—the strange and evocative feeling that it leaves you with is haunting and memorable.
One can argue that Decker’s three maladjusted and fragile characters are the exact reasons why this drama is as mercurial as it is—the delicate molecules of their fragile environment being jarred enough to burn down the entire facade of the bucolic setting. Decker, like her movies, possesses a je ne sais quoi quality that is fascinating, even when it’s not connecting as it should. Alluring and captivating, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” can’t ultimately overcome its undeveloped arty tendencies, but its hazy exploration of dread and desire is still unique enough to make an impression. [C+]