Josephine Decker’s critical notoriety skyrocketed in 2018 thanks to her two most recent features: the form-breaking documentary Flames and, more notably, the anxiety-fueled nightmare drama Madeline’s Madeleine. However, the director has been steadily working for at least a decade as an actor, an editor, a performance artist, a documentarian, and a below the radar auteur – frequently reduced to her role as a collaborator of mumblecore mainstay Joe Swanberg in critical discussion. It would be tempting, then, to assume that her notoriety breakthrough last year was a result of some great escalation in ambition or craft in her filmmaking technique, as is often the case with embattled mumblecore veterans who later make the leap to critical darlings. One viewing of Decker’s 2013 narrative feature debut Butter on the Latch will dispel that assumption in just 70 brief, nerve-racking minutes of full-on auteurist onslaught. All the basic building blocks of Madeline’s Madeline were already present in Decker’s debut five years ago; they were just contained to a more restrictive, boxed-in narrative so that their full value is not as readily apparent. I was even surprised to find that restriction often leads to more effective results, especially in terms of eeriness & character definition, even if Decker’s 2018 releases are technically more impressive in terms of pure narrative ambition. Her audacity & editing room mastery have always been in plain sight on the screen; it just took us half a decade to notice.
The tones & methods of Madleine’s Madeline are immediately apparent in Butter on the Latch, as the film opens with a young woman tearing through NYC in a frantic state – the audience immersed in her POV through visual & auditory-overloaded details. Decker’s vulnerably earnest depictions of performance art (a medium often parodically targeted in sketch comedy mockery) that commands so much of the runtime in Madeline’s Madeline is also the first introduction we have as an audience in Butter on the Latch—confronted with an uncomfortable, surreal image of NYC theatre. Most of Butter on the Latch is anchored to an entirely different kind of artistic performance, however: Balkan folk music. Harshly jumping from the concrete modernity of NYC to the woodland location of the East European Folk Life Center in CA, Butter on the Latch is most distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in its immersion in Nature. The Balkan folk music camp where most of the narrative is spent provides a pervasive deluge of percussive chants & instrumentation similar to what’s offered in the more recent film; the story is also framed through the fraught mental state of a frantically unraveling protagonist similar to Madeline’s Madeline’s. It’s mostly the thick-wooded greenery of the surroundings that alters the texture & atmosphere in a substantial way. The idyllic Nature getaway setting of Butter on the Latch recalls a more reality-fractured Blair Witch Project (but less straightforward-horror) or a more energetically surreal Woodshock (but less fashionable). I can only name one or two titles that fall within a stone’s throw of Butter on the Latch’s peculiar Natural menace esthetic, Felt & Queen of Earth, and they’re both remarkable works that were released years after Decker’s debut.
Besides its Natural setting, Butter on the Latch is distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in the restrictions of its narrative scope. Instead of going for broke in its detours from reality & immersions in an individual character’s perception, Butter on the Latch disorients its audience in much more concentrated, careful jabs. The film functions almost like a 2010s update to Persona, with two friendly-on-the-surface women becoming increasingly volatile in their unraveling friendship & entangling identities. Two friends reunite outside their NYC arts scene stomping grounds, using the Balkan folk music camp as a kind of restorative spiritual retreat. A fractured editing style purposefully confuses the crises that distinguish them from each other: a recent romantic breakup, black-out alcoholism episodes, an apparent drugging & sexual assault, an unraveling internal state, etc. We follow the story though just one character’s POV, but the divisions between them become so blurred, despite being the central source of conflict, that they might as well be one self-hating mess. Along with this blending of personae, the stakes of the central relationship exponentially escalate from jocular discussion of romance & sex to violent hallucinations of emotional outbursts & physical brutality. This mode of conflict isn’t all that different from the three-way maternal war of emotional outbursts & weaponized art in Madeline’s Madeline. The main difference it that the narrative is slightly more contained & restricted, so that the characters locked in subliminal battle are better defined as distinct personalities (paradoxically so, given the gradual melding of their personae).
The main thing I’ve learned from the few Josephine Decker pictures I’ve seen is that her credit as an editor is just as important as her seat in the director’s chair. Describing the tones & aesthetics of Butter on the Latch or Madeline’s Madeline can only convey so much of the experience of seeing them projected; the defining quality of these pictures are the minute to minute rhythms of Decker’s volatile editing style. Butter on the Latch speeds up, slows down, turns itself inside out, and explodes in poetic, unpredictable jolts in more interesting ways that any plot or imagery summation could ever capture. Her debut goes in & out of consciousness in strange, terrifying locales along with its protagonist, making a day (or 70min) in her head feel like a nauseating nightmare. It’s a skill in pacing & sensory immersion I was shocked to see already so well developed in her debut feature.
Just the fact that I spent so much of this review comparing Butter on the Latch to her most recent work lets me know that Decker’s merits as a cinematic voice are so singular that discussing individual releases from her feels like blurting out an incomplete thought. I probably shouldn’t have even reviewed this film until I had also watched its follow-up, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but I did find dialing the clock back to her start illuminating all the same. Butter on the Latch is so confident & slyly sinister that it made me appreciate Decker’s 2018 releases even more in comparative retrospect. Her work’s potency & clarity in vision only becomes more apparent the deeper you sink into her catalog; 2018 just happened the year most of us took notice.