Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
“There’s just something about the way you carry yourself, about the way you walk. You carry a lot of tension in your shoulders. Like you got a secret you don’t want anyone to know. Or maybe you’re gay.”
The speaker is Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), the sly, mocking owner of a Kentucky farm, who is constantly trying to figure out who the new hired hand Akin (Joe Swanberg) is – when, that is, he’s not bullying him or gruffly questioning his masculinity. Later, coarsely blending the language of sexual technique and animal husbandry, Jeremiah will ask whether his guest, now nicknamed Shoulders, is “a horse man… or a cow man.”
It’s true that the taciturn Akin has secrets – but then so does everybody in Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, a slippery, elusive film whose own precise identity proves just as difficult to pin down. ‘Comedy’, ‘romance’ and ‘thriller’, the categories to which it is amusingly ascribed by IMDb, barely seem adequate. On the one hand, it’s a lyrical neo-western, all sun-dappled impressionism and rural simplicity; on the other, it’s an erotically charged triangle that also feels like a tensely coiled trap; and yet again it has elements of drama and horror, wrapped in a strange, handheld realism that occasionally collides with characters’ fantasies or nightmares; there’s even a flashback sequence shot from a cow’s point of view. All these different parts relate to each other as ambiguously as budding, desireful Sarah (Sophie Traub) relates to Jeremiah, who may not, despite being addressed as ‘Daddy’, actually be her father, let alone behave like one.
When Akin arrives at the farm, he removes his wedding ring and lies about the fact that he is married to Drew (Kristin Slaysman) – perhaps merely because, as Jeremiah puts it, he wants to “get a little action this summer”, or perhaps because he wants to put some distance, at least temporarily, between himself and the great sense of loss that has been haunting him (“I miss her,” he mutters in anguish into his mobile phone). Lonely, motherless and highly sensual, Sarah also suffers loss. The first words of her abstract voice-over are, “For all my life I missed my lover”, even if it remains unclear whether that lover is Akin, Jeremiah, fantasy figure or God.
When Akin eventually takes advantage, Sarah shows (or feigns) resistance, and actually, audibly says “No”, even though it becomes clear that she has carefully engineered this tryst herself, and is getting exactly what she wants – and so director/co-writer Josephine Decker presents a provocatively qualified portrayal of assault and consent that will pay off asymmetrically in the final scenes. Sarah’s seduction of Akin involves bloodily biting the head off a frog, which, alongside her clowning with a headless chicken in the opening sequence, represents her contribution to the film’s strange but tangible sense of predatory menace. Jeremiah’s drunken firing of a gun into the night air, the way he brandishes a chainsaw, his growling voice and his generally seething aggression, also foreshadow violence to come.
Through frenetic editing and a discordant string-based score (by Molly Herron and Jeff Young), Decker constantly distorts, disorients and transforms her quiet country idyll into a landscape of longing and loss occasionally punctuated by behaviour most bestial. Thou Wast Mild And Lovely is a true one-off, carrying both secrets and great tension in its shimmering shoulders.