Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

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.

-Brandon Ledet.

Jules of Light and Dark (2018)

Robert Longstreet isn’t an especially flashy actor, neither in celebrity nor in performance. He has the appearance & demeanor of a kindhearted, broken-down Russell Crowe, playing most of his roles as a lovable but emotionally volatile galoot. As quietly sad & reflective as his screen presence can be, I find myself getting excited whenever I see his name among a project’s credits. Between Mohawk, Septien, Take Shelter, The Haunting of Hill House, Sorry to Bother You, and I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Longstreet has demonstrated that his choice in projects is at the very least consistently interesting; he may not always steal the show, but the show itself will never be a bore. I’m used to seeing him as a minor (even if often eccentric) character in these works, so it was a wonderful surprise to watch him co-lead an indie drama in Jules of Light and Dark. A dual trauma & recovery narrative, Jules of Light and Dark splits its POV between two unlikely protagonists: a listless partygoing college student (Snowy Bing Bongs’s Tallie Medel) & a hopeless-drunk oil field worker played by Longstreet. It’s a small-scale drama that could easily sink into indie film fest tedium, but Longstreet’s presence effectively vouches for the young cast around him, as well as for first-time director Daniel Laabs.

The college student drama of Jules of Light and Dark follows a young lesbian at the center of a romantic triangle, as her longtime girlfriend Jules pushes her to reluctantly experiment with bringing a third, masculine partner (a sweet, but clueless DJ) into the bedroom. The local rave scene they’re involved in—staged in empty, isolated Texan fields—clouds their ability to negotiate this sexual discomfort soberly (in multiple meanings of the word), and the movie is densely packed with college-age sexual mishaps. The oil worker drama half is also clouded by substance abuse and sexual discomfort, as Longstreet’s co-protagonist struggles to out himself as queer and instead hides his true colors beneath untold gallons of alcohol. These dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when a car accident after “the last rave of the year” leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.

Laabs strikes an interesting balance here, both searching for small moments of intimate drama between his well-defined characters and chasing the aesthetic pleasures of rural rave culture – especially in the way glitter & nightclub lighting clash with the campfire-warmed barnyard setting of a horse ranch. Medel holds her own as a wide-eyed, wholesome queer punk in the middle of a college-age identity crisis she was reluctantly pushed into by a restless girlfriend. Her character’s attempts to hold onto failed or fading relationships at any cost are wonderfully paralleled by the oil worker’s own desperation to re-forge meaningful connections he already drank into oblivion long before the movie started. It was Longstreet’s performance as that drunken, broken down galoot that really won me over. For all the film’s glitter & molly excess and frustrated moments of sexual exploration, the best sequence throughout simply follows Longstreet as he decides whether to adopt a kitten or a puppy from the local animal shelter in his desperate, misguided attempts to establish emotional connections with another living being. Watching that sappy drunk play with a kitten from the opposite end of a kennel makes him pitiful enough to fall in love with, which only makes him more dangerous. Longstreet nails that quietly, lovably pathetic tone perfectly, as he already has many times before, largely unnoticed.

-Brandon Ledet

Septien (2011)

“Have you ever been force-fed a cheeseburger by your mama sitting next to a man with half a body?”

One of the heftiest shames on my house is the stack of unwatched DVDs leftover from Blockbuster’s going out of business liquidation sales years and years ago. The unwatched titles that remain from those hurried purchases are mismatched odds & ends: a kids’ movie with an ugly CG alien, a Coen Brothers “classic” I’ve never successfully watched without failing asleep midway, a little-loved Tom Cruise sci-fi epic, etc. Lurking among this eclectic mess was a 2011 Sundance festival release titled Septien, a movie I likely would never had heard of if it weren’t for that bargain bin purchase. Septien feels like the exact kind of oddity you’d catch at a film festival and never hear from again, so it’s bizarre that it had wide enough distribution to land somewhere as mainstream as a Blockbuster (liquidation sale). The only potential notoriety the film could claim is an early cinematography credit for director Jeremy Saulnier, of later Blue Ruin & Green Room “fame.” A featured performance from Robert Longstreet, who later appeared in I Don’t Feel at a Home in This World Anymore, also suggests that this picture is significant in its connection to Saulnier and his frequent collaborators, but the picture itself doesn’t support that connective tissue. The grit & immediacy of Saulnier’s eye informs the film’s indie cinema aesthetic, but in tone & subject Septien lacks the regular-people-in-over-their-heads-in-hyperviolence motif that has come to define his work. Oddly, it’s the brief appearance of Rachel Korine (longtime collaborator & romantic partner to avant garde prankster Harmony Korine) in a minor role that helps put this film in its proper context. That kind of context is especially helpful for a microbudget release you’re completely blind on, whether because you caught it a festival or because you rescued it from a bankrupt video rental store in a panic.

A frequent tactic of microbudget indies is to outweigh the scale of their financial means with an outsized sense of pure weirdness. The typical gods of this approach are your David Lynches, your John Waters, your Werner Herzogs, your Harmony Korines, etc. Septien is a clear disciple of the independent cinema path carved by those notorious weirdos, even if writer-director-star Michael Tully can’t quite match the impact of their most substantial works. Tully appears in full Joaquin Phoenix beard & Unabomber gear as a talented ex-athlete & teenage runaway. Returning home to his family farm after a two-decade absence, our beard-o protagonist settles into a Herzogian domesticity with his two equally off-putting brothers. The eldest is an obsessive homemaker who insists on clean surfaces & family meals in a matronly tone. The youngest is an artist who spends most of his days painting primal depictions of football players with mutilated genitals alone in the shed. For his part, the prodigal son protagonist uses his destitute appearance to hustle unsuspecting normies at various sports for small wagers of money. He proves to be exceptionally good at soccer, basketball, tennis, and made-up games that barely qualify as sports at all. The only athletic sore spot is his history with football, which ended in an unspoken, mysterious trauma that inspired him to run away from home in the first place. This trauma seems to be connected to a plumber the boys hire to help in a septic tank crisis (with Korine in tow the only female character of any significance), but the details are both vague & prolonged in their reveal. Strange anxieties about queer desire, homophobic upbringing, and past demons that must be “smothered” emerge from this outlandish familiar drama, but are just as difficult to pin down as any logical narrative progression, deliberately so.

The true nexus of Septien is a second act scene involving an outsider art show. The violent, sexually juvenile artwork of the youngest brother is publicly displayed, but not for sale (the paintings, which have a distinct Daniel Johnston quality, are the real-life art work of actor Onur Tukel). The eldest brother (Longstreet) arranges the event and provides deviled eggs, popcorn and lemonade for the guests. He also lords over the proceedings as an MC, even though his genteel sensibilities are offended by artwork he considers to be cartoons of people “cutting their wee-wees off and eating doo-doo.” Beyond homemaking, his own artwork is this way with language, which includes turns of phrase like, “I could spit hornets, I’m so mad,” and “You smell a little like a caribou.” The wayward brother (Tully) merely watches those proceedings in silence, glumly taking in the accompanying camcorder film screening (which includes more football imagery) and stuffing his face with concessions. In its marketing, Septien was lightly suggested to be a horror movie, but it’s much closer to the outsider art showcase of this “gallery” sequence (which appears to be staged in a VFW hall). Tukel’s visual art, Longstreet’s motherly Cuddles Kovinsky line deliveries, and Tully’s detached observation of the bizarre world around him are the main draws to the film, even more so than the masculine grief of its central crisis or its connection to the Jeremy Saulnier zoo crew. Fans of the looser end of Herzog’s or Korine’s respective catalogs (or anyone who has blindly attended film festival screenings on a whim) should know what minor pleasures to expect out of that kind of proposition. Personally, I just appreciate that something so quietly bizarre managed to slip into the Metairie Blockbuster stacks unnoticed, even if it took me years to appreciate its sore thumb presence in my own dusty library of unwatched odds & ends.

-Brandon Ledet