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Thou Wast Mild and Lovely

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/22/14 02:05:53

"Sometimes the line between 'striking' and 'bizarre' is thin. Not this time."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Before Joesphine Decker's "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" starts to be a weird, creepy sort of movie in a way that has real certainty and direction, it's got two scenes that kind of warn the audience what it's getting into. In the first, farmer Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) are rolling around in the grass, throwing a headless chicken back and forth, getting blood all over their clothes. In the second, Sarah narrates, describing a strange, ethereal, perfect lover while the camera slowly zooms in on her increasingly agitated dog. Decker quickly moves on to other things, and maybe I'm reading things into that latter juxtaposition that aren't meant, but even if that's the case, what the hell is the deal with everything else?

There's also a new farmhand on Jeremiah's spread, Akin (Joe Swanberg), a taciturn young man who has hired on for the season . He has lied and said he was single in order to get the job, but that just leaves him dealing with a beautiful girl his own age starved for male attention and a man whose attitude toward anyone who looks at his daughter a certain way seems to owe more to jealousy than protectiveness - and who seems to disdain Akin even beyond that.

It's a situation with seemingly unlimited range to get creepier even before adding family to it, whether they be Jeremiah's equally icky kin or Akin's wife Drew (Kristin Slaysman). The way Decker (and co-writer David Barker) manages to keep finding ways to push the situation a little further, whether by things that are transparently troublesome or moments that should be innocent but instead seem to fuel the strange erotic atmosphere of this setting, is impressive to behold. There's no easily identifiable moment when things go from a situation that Akin probably would rather not be in but will endure because work is hard to find to something that is messed up beyond toleration, but the movie is clearly there by the end. There's a pervasive, uneasy air of dangerous sexuality.

Sophie Traub's Sarah stands right in the middle of it, and she's excellent, the motor that runs much of the movie. Sarah is a disaster waiting to happen, but Traub gives her an approachable, friendly air that never implies that she doesn't know what effect she has on the likes of Akin but only occasionally hints that there's malice to her; it's the kind of character where a man will work to come up with backstory that justifies her actions. Swanberg, meanwhile, gives a fine study of repression and perhaps guilt couched in respectful comments, averted gazes, and surprising outbursts, a performance that doesn't seem to be doing much but fits in like a jigsaw puzzle. Robert Longstreet, meanwhile, is clearly doing plenty, coming out with unbridled malevolence, working everything Jeremiah says for maximum cruelty and clearly reveling in the power he has over Akin without every uttering a threat. It's a monstrous role and Longstreet owns it.

All the ingredients are there for a tight, dramatic erotic thriller, but Ms. Decker's willingness to push things past what audiences are comfortable with winds up being one heck of a double-edged sword. She puts scenes in the movie that are just downright peculiar, such as an important flashback involving a cow, and while not everyone may go for it, the daring is worth admiration. Perhaps less so is how she and cinematographer Ashley Connor seem to love out-of-focus shots, a tool they deploy often enough to make it lose any power it might have. And while she excels at the build-up, the tear-down is kind of clumsy, even if it eventually arrives at a place that makes sense.

There's a combination of precise skill and rawness in Decker's movie, unfettered by fear of making mistakes. In a way, it will be a shame if her voice is every formed into something acceptable to the mainstream, even if what she's making is a bit too grotesque and flawed for even some adventurous moviegoers to completely enjoy it.

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