There’s something of Terrence Malick in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, most obviously in director Josephine Decker’s penchant for woozy first-person shots that appear to float over an isolated farmhouse that’s photographed to resemble a lush, forbidden Garden of Eden. The filmmaker’s tracking shots, like Malick’s, simulate existential disembodiment, the camera often appearing to assume the point of view of a character if they were to shed their corporeal form for a few moments so as to truly feel their surroundings. Decker also has Malick’s taste for oblique voiceover and, more importantly, his acute hyper-awareness of texture. One is always conscious of the state of the characters’ skin, whether their hair is beginning to stand at alarm or arousal, or if their finger nails are caked with dirt after a day spent tending to cows or mending fences. And the sounds, of cracking bones as someone stretches and settles themselves into the soft grass, or of a skirt rustling as it clings to a shapely derriere, are heightened to the point of ripe fetish.
But an unexpected sense of parody keeps breaking through the surface of this expressionist Southern gothic that’s reminiscent of Robert Altman, particularly Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye. The filmmaker is clearly enraptured with her beautiful imagery and her heightened atmosphere of guilty dread, but she’s also amused by our hunger for melodramatic clichés, and the film often suggests what might happen if Malick were to adapt Tennessee Williams, somehow gaining a sense of humor in the process. Sometimes effects are so over-emphasized that the portentous mood pops, just briefly, which serves to paradoxically strengthen the hold of the film’s spell; the humor quietly affirms the audience’s complicity with Decker without encouraging its superiority over the characters (a remarkable feat).
This tonal elasticity is most explicit in the character of Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), who employs Sarah (Sophie Traub) and Akin (Joe Swanberg) on his farm, and who’s either Sarah’s father, or her lover, or neither, or both. Jeremiah is initially presented as a textbook macho rural loony, the sort that frequently populates horror films, but he’ll occasionally say something so aggressively odd it serves to briefly underline the obsessive absurdity of Akin’s instant and ungovernable attraction to Sarah. Akin hungrily masturbates to Sarah in semi-obscured view in the neighboring horse staples, while Jeremiah claims that he can discern the young man’s sexuality by the tension in his shoulders or, implicatively, by the fact that he knows how to cook eggs. Longstreet isn’t just playing Jeremiah, he’s also playing a hammy actor, and he chews his lines with a relish that’s both amusing and frighteningly unpredictable.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely ultimately lacks the fullness of a major film: It could use a third act, and the ending breaks its hold over us with a suddenness that’s probably intentional but unsatisfying. The film plays as a test project that allows Decker to fine-tune her stylistic mojo, so to speak, measuring how far she can push her formal effects into the realm of purplish aural/visual prose without completely succumbing to ludicrousness (which might be something to see anyway). But this is still a confident work that smashingly updates the Southern gothic for contemporary generations. Though Decker’s influences are numerous, she also displays an impressive ability to modulate a great variety of emotional currents at once without losing control of the film in the process. She spins a tapestry of moods that come to represent a great variety of human expectations, whether they’re transcended, revised, or brutally dashed.