The most consistent visual signature Josephine Decker offers in her debut feature, Butter on the Latch, is her manipulation of focal lengths. Many scenes begin completely blurred, only for the image to gradually come into focus; in others, the filmmaker and her cinematographer, Ashley Connor, emphasize the difference between a black background and sharp foreground, or vice versa. Sometimes, in context, these aesthetic registers feel genuinely evocative of a character’s increasingly tenuous grasp of control of the world around her; other times, though, it seems little more than showy affectation. Such is the film’s method as a whole, a hit-or-miss, go-for-broke approach to telling a somewhat familiar tale of female friendship and jealousy.
The economy with which Decker establishes the troubled life of her main character, Sarah (Sarah Small), in Butter on the Latch’s first 10 minutes is impressive for how the camera’s pirouette around the woman encapsulates her downward spiral. And an early scene in which Sarah reconnects with an old friend, Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), exudes a breathtaking sense of intimacy, one fostered by both the handheld immediacy of the close-ups of the two actresses and Decker’s reliance on improvisation. That use of improv extends throughout the film, giving the character interactions a vividly naturalistic feel even as the sprung rhythms of Decker’s editing and the dips into nightmarish surrealism increasingly dominate; a dream sequence involving a hypnotic folk-song chant, a dance in the woods, and an old woman compares favorably to David Lynch at his most unhinged.
Throughout the film, Decker aims to evoke a dislocating sense of isolation in nature and how that fans the flames of one woman’s desperation for honest human connection. But while her deliberate bypassing of conventional exposition is refreshing, Sarah’s descent into jealousy-ridden madness—resulting, in part, from being stranded for much of the story in a folksy song-and-dance camp in Mendocino, California—also feels sketchy and under-imagined. The film’s more overtly observational moments never quite fuse with the more surrealistic passages to convey an organically convincing sense of a mind going on the fritz, its dramatic arc coming off as more notional than satisfyingly dramatized. Still, there are enough isolated moments of evocative, expressive power in Butter on the Latch that, even if Decker’s reach ultimately exceeds her grasp, a vague yet undeniable mood is bound to still linger in one’s memory, long after its final image—of Sarah laughing to herself in a fit of mad catharsis, with no one except the windy tresses of a nearby tree to bear witness—has come and gone.