From the first frames of the film, Josephine Decker’s 2014 feature Thou Wast Mild and Lovely merges violence and play. Sarah (Sophie Traub) chases her father Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) across the lawn, jabbing him with a decapitated hen. They giggle and run at each other, getting blood on their clothes.
When they’re done playing, the handheld camera wanders away, moving into a close-up of the discarded chicken lying headless on the grass. It then moves over to a growling dog as Sarah speaks in voiceover about the virtues of “her lover,” a hypothetical romance fulfilling all her desires. This is followed by a brief dream-like montage of Sarah swinging through the air in her green dress and a time-lapse landscape of mist and stars.
So begins the film. This tension between dreamy lushness and the menace of impending violence runs throughout Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, this tension paralleled by a camera that is at times incredibly intimate and at others withholding even a basic connection to the characters. The narrative volleys back and forth between bringing us in and shutting us out.
In one scene toward the end of the first act, Akin (Joe Swanberg), the field hand hired by Jeremiah for the summer, follows Sarah to find an escaped cow. They come upon a stream and Sarah catches a frog, playing with it and doting on it at first while Akin expresses his dislike for amphibians. Sarah then bites the head off the frog, spitting out its head, blood sputtering into her hair. The moment harkens back to the opening scene with the decapitated chicken. Akin leans toward her and kisses her, frog’s blood still filling her mouth. The camera frames them in staccato close-ups while they have sex, then cuts away briefly to a fast-motion shot of flies buzzing around the escaped cow with the buzzing sound emphasized on the soundtrack. As the couple falls to the ground together, the handheld camera falls with them.
The next scene brings us into the family kitchen. The camera is positioned behind Jeremiah’s head as he talks to Akin, who sits just opposite him at the table, but the framing keeps us from seeing Akin’s reactions. The film cuts fairly quickly to a one-shot of Jeremiah, the camera positioned directly in front of him. As Jeremiah and Akin converse, the film holds on Jeremiah uncomfortably long, withholding the usual shot-reverse-shot we’re accustomed to. It’s not until Akin lies that the camera cuts away, first to a one-shot of Sarah, then finally to Akin.
The mood is tense and menacing. At one point, Jeremiah says, “It’s amazing how long you can keep someone alive if you just clean their wounds.” He calls out Akin on his lies, and then suggests Akin is “more than welcome” to “get a little action this summer,” perhaps implying that he’s fine with Akin sleeping with his daughter. The scene ends with a shot behind Sarah’s head.
The juxtaposition of these two scenes illustrates how Decker builds pressure and desire in tandem. As the film unfolds, it will continue to walk the tightrope between dreamy playfulness and impending danger, even as Akin’s wife finally comes to visit the farm.
When the horror finally bubbles over, it’s sudden and sensorially overwhelming, but still we don’t abandon the dreams. A moment of violence is punctuated by the sound of Sarah playing the ukulele, speaking in voiceover about her lover, and the film cuts away from the bloody scene to picturesque images of the farm. She is still speaking in voiceover, saying, “You should not be afraid,” even as the imagery returns to the present horror. A toddler crying alone on the lawn and imminent death in the kitchen.
The Stanley Brothers play on the soundtrack as the film closes, almost cheerful as we process the nightmare we’ve just witnessed.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely played at the IU Cinema in October 2014 as part of a visit by Josephine Decker.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.