By Don Simpson | February 9, 2014
Director: Josephine Decker
Writer: Josephine Decker
Starring: Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub, Robert Longstreet, Kristin Slaysman, Matt Orme, Geoff Marslett, Shelley Delaney, Brooklyn Schuck, Raleigh Schuck, Erica McClure, Bennett Alderdice
Akin (Joe Swanberg) arrives at Jeremiah’s (Robert Longstreet) farm in rural Kentucky to work as a handyman for the summer. Presumably with no other options for income, Akin has left his family behind as he clandestinely slips his wedding ring into the glovebox of his car. His motivation for keeping his family a secret leaves the inquisitively natured Jeremiah to derive his own conclusions about the blatant tan line on Akin’s ring finger. Jeremiah’s initial assumption is that Akin might be looking for some extramarital action this summer and he might not be all that far off. That is perfectly acceptable in Jeremiah’s sexually perverse mind, he even has a young woman — Sarah (Sophie Traub) — awaiting such advances.
As if living in a time capsule, Sarah dutifully obliges to be Jeremiah’s household slave fulfilling all of the stereotypical gender roles from the 1950s. Though Jeremiah’s relationship to/with Sarah is questionably creepy, it is (quite thankfully) never visualized or explained. There is a prevailing threat of violence in his sternness, but other than the bruises on her thighs there are no apparent signs of abuse or molestation.
Whether he is Sarah’s overprotective father or jealous lover, Jeremiah attempts to pry information from Akin; but Akin’s affinity for silence and privacy frustrates Jeremiah because he knows that Akin is not as simple as he purports to be. As Akin’s hunched shoulders suggest, his secrets are quite a heavy burden to carry. The music that Akin is listening to as he initially drives up to Jeremiah’s house suggests that he is cultured and refined, as does his homebrewing hobby. He may not be bourgeois enough to have his laundry professionally cleaned, but Akin is obviously not a brainless hick.
All the while, Akin gazes wantonly at the naively coquettish Sarah, lustfully fantasizing about all of the things that he would like to do to the proverbial farmer’s daughter. Sarah is slightly more furtive as she watches Akin, though her stare is no less erotically tinged.
Despite the vast expanses of land that surround them, there is a prevailing sense of claustrophobia as the characters are always in close proximity with each other. Even when they are alone, there is no privacy, someone (or some animal) is always watching. Ashley Connor’s cinematography perpetuates the film’s voyeuristic air. Hypnotically floating around the farm like an unseen character, the camera sometimes observes from afar, while other times it is mere inches away from the characters. The camera often stops at awkward angles, as if frozen out of fear of being noticed. The camera’s lustful lens mimics the male gaze, targeting Sarah as its object of desire; slyly ogling the contours of Sarah’s nubile frame, her skin is drenched with unbridled sensuality.
The strength of writer-director Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is its adroit manipulation of our vision and hearing (thanks to Molly Herron and Jeff Young’s haunting score) to the point that we become immersed in the same woozily seductive sedation as Akin. A uniquely transformative experience, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely puts us in the same psychological framework as its characters, directly projecting their feelings and desires on us.
The highly impressionistic lensing (thanks to Connor’s affinity for shallow depth of field) creates a fantastical mise-en-scène in which nightmares and libidinous desires coexist, albeit not very peacefully. The sultry voice of a disembodied narrator adds a fairytale-esque whimsy as she recites passages about her lover while suggesting some oblique connections with the onscreen characters.
Decker’s luridly poetic vision luxuriates in the ethereal and the mythical yet grounds everything in the organic elements of nature, such as water, wood, dirt and blood. Textures and patterns also carry a significant weight, but most amazing is the purposeful coordination of colors, as the characters’ wardrobes always seem to perfectly compliment the backgrounds. (If there is any color symbolism going on, most of it exists well over my head.)
Decker studies the inherent power struggles between her characters, specifically how Sarah and Akin exploit each other’s repressed sexual desires while Jeremiah relies upon psychological abuse. Jeremiah’s story about the good wolf and bad wolf that battle inside everyone suggests the antagonistic duality of good versus evil that exists within each of Decker’s characters. Sex and violence flirtatiously encircle each other, developing into a much more menacing relationship as the film progresses. The farmhouse functions as a pressure cooker that blows its lid once Akin’s wife, Drew (Kristin Slaysman), is tossed into the frothy mess.
While so much of this film is conveyed by way of its technical aspects (cinematography, score), the performances by Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg and Robert Longstreet are what make this more than just an experimental exercise in sound and vision. (Kristin Slaysman and Geoff Marslett are also fantastic!) This is clearly a break-out performance for Traub who truly embodies her role as Sarah with the perfect blend of naive youthfulness and cunning seduction. Joe Swanberg is also perfectly cast as the quiet and brooding sulker. The performance as Akin relies so much on Swanberg’s frame and posture, while also conveying a lot of emotion via his eyes. Since Swanberg often plays variations of himself, this is probably his most demanding performance to date. And then, there is Longstreet…who will hopefully finally get the attention he deserves from this role. As a long-time admirer of Longstreet’s work, Jeremiah is one character that really fits him like a glove. A truly commanding performance, led by his mastery of Jeremiah’s body movements and his powerful eyes, Longstreet transforms into a fearsomely maniacal beast that is sure to haunt many a nightmare.