Day 7: Female-Helmed Horror Movies For October

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Written and Directed by Josephine Decker
1 hour, 34 minutes
I watched it on Shudder. (Shout out to Shudder for having a Female Director showcase!)
(Oh and a quick clarification to my new horror fan or horror-curious friends, Shudder is a horror movie lover’s dream of a paid subscription service. They have a wide variety of scary flicks and TV shows, including original content. I highly recommend.)

“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” written and directed by Josephine Decker (also raised in Texas – shout out to another Yellow Rose), tells the story of an odd love triangle of sorts. Akin (Joe Swanberg) takes some temporary live-in work at a small farm, run by Sarah (Sophia Traub) and her father, the volatile, controlling Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet). Sexual tensions ensue, where Akin is drawn to the odd, earthy Sarah, despite his having a wife and son back home. Jeremiah was my favorite character with a bullet, the kind of guy who just never plays in the subtext world. He says exactly what he thinks, outs any kind of secret possible, and demands whatever small or big thing he wants.

It’s Jeremiah’s force that really made the rest of the film’s ambling nature stick out even more. While I usually love a good slow burn horror flick (tipping my hat to you, “House of the Devil”), the slow burn here never adds up to much and it’s even a bit boring on the way there. It’s a movie supposedly about tension (sexual, economical), violence, and about our choices in life and their consequences. But instead I found the main characters to be fairly ridiculous. There’s a scene about halfway through, where Sarah writhes around in the grass, her eyes closed, her hands outstretched above her, maybe having a fantasy, maybe experiencing a strange memory (not clear, not sure, not sure I care), and her lover watches from a bit away, enthralled by this mysterious behavior. I was amazed I didn’t laugh.

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I was so excited when I saw Joe Swanberg was in this. He’s been making his “mumblecore” movies and acting in others for years, and I have been ON BOARD. I know Swanberg’s work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I appreciate that he always commits fully and tries for something different. But while he brings his genuinely-feels-like-an-everyman expertise, the gauzy script just gives him nothing. So he’s ineffectual, more of a cog in the tragedy machine than a real character. The chemistry between Sarah and Akin feels postured, as though they were told to mirror the behaviors of the farm animals Decker so lovingly displays throughout. I wasn’t rooting for them or against them. I was just blowing in the wind across the farm, waiting for those gorgeous cow shots to come back. I never connected to it.

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I’m intrigued because this one feels so directed with the male gaze and yet, nope, a woman wrote and directed it. Of course it’s none of my business whether Decker herself is attracted to women, but these scenes seem to be either an attempt to display what she thinks men attracted to women like to see or an attempt to consciously play on that male gaze. There are so very many shots of Sarah with her shirt off, pants down, etc., while Swanberg watches or fantasizes about her. But they’re neither sexy shots nor ridiculous, so they fall flat. Sophie Traub is a beautiful woman and an interesting presence but she needed more to work with, too. (Also, maybe this is unfair but why does the isolated farm girl have such a cool girl bob haircut?)

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Despite the fact that I didn’t connect with this flick, perhaps I’ll give Decker’s “Butter on the Latch” a try after this month. I noticed it’s also featured on Shudder, alongside this one. Her thrillers, which also includes a third feature called “Madeline’s Madeline,” are considered largely experimental, a label I typically bump on. Do people just label anything that wouldn’t include a clear-cut hero’s journey “experimental?”

I’m one of those horror fans that think anything with any horrifying elements counts as a horror film but even under those standards, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” barely qualifies. Okay, Jeremiah is a constant, looming menace. The ending sequence has some good shocks and goes pretty far but even then, Decker sacrifices essential clarity for arty shots that intentionally leaves things just plain confusing when she means to be mysterious. I know it’s less auteur romantic, but sometimes, you still just need some coverage. It is indeed mild and lovely but man, they needed to use that lovely photography to tell a clearer, more compelling story.

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