After becoming accustomed to Josephine Decker’s aggressive, immersive subjectivity that sinks her films’ POV deep into the psyches of her fraught protagonists (in the films Madeline’s Madeline, Flames, and Butter on the Latch). I thought I knew what to expect from the still-burgeoning filmmaker. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, her sophomore feature, mostly lives up to the pattern established in her other works. It shifts the gendered lens of her typical protagonists to a masculine POV, but otherwise her usual character-subjective sensory-immersion techniques remain. The extremity of the sexuality & violence depicted in the film feels way more intense than her usual impulses, however, as evidenced by the Kanopy streaming platform warning me of the film’s “graphic” & “offensive” content before the movie began. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely finds Josephine Decker taking her psychological horror show to the farm in what’s essentially her version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.
Joe “Mr. Mumblecore” Swanberg stars as a hired hand who spends an unbearably tense summer working for a mean-drunk farmer (the always-welcome Robert Lonsgstreet) and his dangerously horny daughter (Sophie Traub). The archetype of the sex-starved farmer’s daughter who lures visiting men into inciting her father’s vengeful wrath is so old-hat that it’s often the subject of bawdy schoolyard jokes. Decker, of course, finds a unique spin on the cliché by filtering it through her typical method of sensory-immersion psychological freak-outs. The most terrifying aspect of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is the way Decker alternates between sexual menace & genuine eroticism. On one level, the hired farm hand & love-starved farmer’s daughter dynamic plays out exactly the way you’d expect: with the pair using wrestling as foreplay, hiding their attraction & interactions from the father figure like teenagers sneaking away from a schoolmarm, and with the daughter conspicuously displaying private parts of her body as if it were an absent-minded mistake. On a deeper level, the farm hand’s fascination with her goes far beyond visually-stimulated sexual attraction, almost as if he were hypnotized by a witch. One glance at her body and he feels the need to rush off to masturbate in a “private” corner. When visited by his jealous young wife, he still can’t keep his eyes off the farmer’s daughter, transfixed. Meanwhile, her father watches intently as a mean-drunk voyeur, threatening to retaliate against their taboo sexual tryst with horrific violence. Eventually he follows through on that threat, but even when the film devolves into a genre film climax the intense eroticism remains, which only heightens the terror.
I may be overselling the horror genre payoffs to be found in Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. An average horror devotee unfamiliar with Decker’s larger catalog would likely be frustrated in waiting for the film’s last-minute shift to extreme Texas Chainsaw Massacre domesticity. Before these final minutes, the most horror-faithful indulgences on display are in quick flashes of gore-soaked nightmare imagery that torment the farm hand as he struggles to sleep through the night. His attraction to the farmer’s daughter is near-supernatural and the father’s drunkenly brutish behavior (a far cry from Longstreet’s more tender behavior in projects like Septien & Jules of Light and Dark) is consistently alarming, but those conflicts don’t cross the line into outright horror until the final minutes. It’s a testament to Josephine Decker’s ability to generate nightmarish tension & anxiety in audiences that all it takes is a couple last-minute events to tip her usual schtick fully into the horror spectrum. Her most interesting impulse is in that genre context is in Swanberg’s vulnerability as the figurative Final Girl. He’s helpless to the oversexed rural freaks that house him, unable to maintain any personal space or boundaries while under their employ, effectively making him a damsel in distress. Mostly, though, what’s interesting here is how the slight hint of genre filmmaking influences Decker’s usual mode, not the other way around. Swanberg’s portrayal of a man fraying under the pressure of animalistic lust & an aggressive environment is not unfamiliar to Decker’s typical works, but the extreme violence that release the pressure does feel unique for her. Decker’s craft is as arresting & unnerving as always here, so it should be no surprise that the film is nonstop psycho-sexual terror. The shocking thing is how easily that tone can be tipped into the direction of horror convention.