Josephine Decker’s narrative debut “Butter on the Latch” starts off as the meandering portrait of a young woman visiting a Balkan music camp before it ventures into the strange, beguiling otherworldly dimension of storytelling pitched somewhere between an avant-garde narrative and a woodsy horror story. Her immediate followup, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” similarly concocts a heightened atmospheric dread that mirrors its characters’ disturbed subjectivity, but places it in a more coherent plot involving a handful of disturbed characters on a farm, where lust, fear and envy dominate the atmosphere. It’s the more palatable entry point to this beguiling filmography, but that’s no saying much. Decker’s movies are an acquired taste with impressive results, but only for those willing to accept their experimental challenges.
The filmmaker has called officially compared this tense, menacing erotic thriller with John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” — a bold grab for greatness on par with Decker’s unapologetically convoluted techniques — though her latest movie’s approach to exploring repressed feelings and tortured relationships deserves a different set of lofty comparisons: Its labyrinthine characteristics suggest the unholy marriage of Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch. While nowhere near the same level of refinement as those giants, Decker concocts a wholly enveloping vision of isolation told with a grimly poetic style that wanders all over the place but never stops playing by its own eerie rulebook.
From the opening minutes, Decker makes it clear that a menacing force lurks beneath the literal series of events, as wild-eyed farmer Jeremiah (a gruff, bearded Robert Longstreet) wrestles with his nubile young daughter Samantha (a similarly creepy Sophie Traub) as the two play with a headless chicken. Decker’s sound design emphasizes an animalistic quality to their playful shouting, highlighting the primal dimensions at play, but it’s the camera that winds up taking charge: As the characters leave the frame and a monotonous narration intones abstract observations (“my lover can touch me everywhere at once”), it surveys the barren farm country in soft focus — then ventures downward to wind up face to face with a snarling dog. That prologue sets the stage for a study of haunting and beautiful emotions thrust together into a strange, chaotic display.
Into this vision arrives Aiken (filmmaker-actor Joe Swanberg, whose usual curious, mildly dazed expression has more disturbing overtones here), a young man hired to work the farm for the summer and forced to content with the bigoted Jeremiah’s harsh epithets around the dinner table. After we see Aiken furtively making calls to his wife back home, the scenario unfolds a little too neatly: Bored and driven by sinister urges, Samantha makes eyes at Aiken while he works the field; as he slips away to masturbate, images of her scowling presence flit through his consciousness. While the drama that unfolds over the course of this deranged love triangle reeks of predictability — and the white trash archetypes feel a little tired from the outset — Decker positions them in an atmosphere of uneasiness that transcends the limitations of the material.
Once the unholy coupling gives into their desires, in a sweaty, dirt-caked exchange, Decker indulges in a series of cutaways that are both discombobulating and hilarious: As the characters writhe together in dust, the cows look on, like silent observers of an ancient transgressive ritual. If that sounds like a pretentious, half-baked experimental indulgence, well, that’s the essence of a movie derives its hypnotic qualities from a willingness to go there. Decker’s narrative work practically celebrates a willingness to follow outright silly pathways in order to arrive at unsettling results.
The ensuing rough, proto-Lynchian nightmare unfolds with shock cuts, an immersive sound design, and ample time lapse photography as Jeremiah grows increasingly suspicious of the duo’s attraction. In the final act, the scheming older man convinces Aiken’s wife (Kristen Slaysman) to visit him on the farm, leading to a final showdown in which the fleeting thematic ingredients finally come together. Decker’s ghostly camera is often out of focus and hovers at imprecise angles, but it retains a calculated effect in service of the story by exploring its unsettling psychological contours: the lush green exteriors of the farm country and the drab indoors underscore the restrictions of an environment on the verge of collapse, not unlike Aiken’s pent-up frustrations.
When he first arrives at the farm, tight-lipped and gazing at nothing in particular, Aiken doesn’t strike Ezekiel as anything new. “Looks like we got another sulker,” Jeremiah observes. One could say the same thing about the movie: Like Decker’s previous feature, it never strays from a bleak, disturbing atmosphere with lyrical connotations no matter the basic dimensions of its plot.
But it does have a direction. In its final act, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” shifts from being an existential horror movie to something far more literal with a violent confrontation. Decker’s juxtaposition of excitement and dread has fascinating implications. No matter how contrived its closing events, they manage to arrive at a substantial payoff, signaling the abrupt transition from the end of a nightmare to the start of an equally startling reality.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Commercial prospects are seriously limited, but a genre label may be able to play up the movie’s horror components with a VOD deal. Coupled with “Butter On the Latch,” also premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is certain to solidify Decker’s presence as a narrative filmmaker worth watching.