Elegant and elliptical, Josephine Decker’s psychodrama is a blurring of the line between waking and dream states. In Butter on the Latch, the first of her two 70-minute films opening at IFP Media Center, two women (Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Sarah Small, who improvised their dialogue) have their friendship tested during a Balkan festival/retreat near Mendocino, California.
There’s something in the woods, and it would appear to know more about them than they do about it: the past traumas that draw them together, the small conflicts that may drive them apart. The abrupt movement and shallow focus of Ashley Connor’s arresting cinematography affords us only the most claustrophobic view of their affairs, like an avant-garde reimagining of The Blair Witch Project.
Much of this plays out under the influence of alcohol as Sarah courts the attention of a fellow camper, and we experience their exploits with all the missing time and confusion of a morning-after memory. Decker grants us no clarity her characters wouldn’t have. The writer/director demonstrates attunement to the natural world in all its beauty and hostility, though the Bulgarian folklore Butter on the Latch takes its mythos from suggests that no flora or fauna is inherently evil, though the spirits that seek to inhabit them may be.
This suggests the question, never answered, of whether these malicious spirits have always been there or if the Balkan rituals transpiring in the wilds of Northern California summoned them. There are no jump-scares in this sensuous thriller, and the lack of anything corporeal on which to focus our unease only makes Butter on the Latch more darkly exhilarating — those spirits may still be out there, swirling through the air at this very moment.
See also: Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, which features a brief, wonderfully strange segment apparently from the perspective of a cow.