Latest Review – Thou Wast Mild and Lovely [LFF] [Dare Strand]

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely

Director: Josephine Decker

Studio: Third Room Productions | Artless Media | Truckstop Media

Distributor: New Europe Film Sales

Year: 2014

Country: USA

Genre: Drama | Erotic Thriller

Running Time: 78 minutes (1:18:19)

Certificate: 15

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Image: Colour

Language: English

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dare

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With Josephine Decker’s debut feature Butter on the Latch currently in contention for the Sutherland Award (First Feature Competition) at this year’s 58th BFI London Film Festival, I have to say I approached this second offering with slightly increased levels of both anticipation and expectation, keen to see what Decker had to offer with her self-described fusion of ‘magic-realism, rom-com, mumblecore, western and horror’.

Set against the rural backdrop of a remote Kentucky cattle ranch, the film centres around Akin (Joe Swanberg), a married man who has taken a summer-season job working as a ranch hand for owner, Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) and his young companion, Sarah (Sophie Traub). The exact relationship between the latter is never actually confirmed, and although Sarah does refer to Jeremiah as Daddy’, we are never sure whether this is actually the case. Akin covets the isolation the ranch offers, hidden away with only two enigmatic others for company (that is aside from the numerous animals situated on the farm). Throughout the film there are subtle hints that foreshadow the violence to come as an increasingly erotic charge begins to flow through this ambiguous central triangle. All of them clearly harbour their own closely guarded secrets and urges, however only some of these will remain concealed.

A sort of mumblecore mash-up of Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, Decker’s complex second feature is a slow-burning erotic thriller, infused with a few interesting ideas and visual devices and taking loose inspiration from John Steinbeck’s ambitious 1952 novel, East of Eden. However with low production values, no real plot structure to latch on to and too many conflicting themes and ideas (many of which are never explored to their full potential), it often proves a little too frustrating and incomprehensible for its own good.

Now that doesn’t necessarily render it a bad film, as I don’t believe it is (and on revisiting the work I’m sure I would read deeper into the layers and unpick the numerous strands Decker dips her toe in), it is just its lack of clarity and sense of direction which ultimately work against it. As previously mentioned, Decker frequently offers up some inventive visual metaphors, unique ideas and directorial touches, however it does begin to appear that she is not too sure what to do with them or in which direction to steer things. She is clearly an accomplished filmmaker and I’m sure she has many great works ahead of her, however Thou Wast Mild and Lovely doesn’t always showcase her potential to its fullest.

The unsteady handheld camerawork and unconventional editing style are perhaps the film’s most divisive elements and do not at all help with clarity issues. Saving Grace’s come in the form of Molly Herron and Jeff Young’s suitably discordant score and the strong, naturalistic performances from the central trio of Swanberg, Traub and Longstreet.

Decker often makes excellent use of the isolated location, unsettling and effectively disorienting the viewer with a subtle intensity and cryptic tone, however it is never quite enough and so much more could be achieved with the various elements on offer.

Less is more may be the old adage, but in this case more is most definitely required.

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