Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the more structured and narrative-driven of Josephine Decker’s first two features, takes place on a farm run by gruff patriarch Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) and his winsome daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub).
The introduction of a hired hand (Joe Swanberg) whom Jeremiah openly distrusts creates a sort of triangular tension, much of it sexual, and pangs of desire that are rarely spoken of even when acted upon. This tension is constantly rising and falling like the readout of a seismometer during a series of small earthquakes, each more noticeable than the last, as it builds toward something dire.
The seeds of all future conflict in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely were sown long ago by some elemental trauma that each character has tried to bury. Our glimpses of what’s already occurred and what will soon come are vivid and impressionistic, prophetic warnings about which everyone seems powerless to do anything other than silently observe. Sarah is in ecstatic harmony with the earth, which is as life-giving and frightful as it is in Decker’s Butter on the Latch.
Decker’s focus on the land extends even further to animals here than it does in that film — at one point, there’s what appears to be a brief, wonderfully strange segment from the perspective of a cow — with Jeremiah relaying an old folktale in which a boy is told that every living person houses two dueling wolves: one good, the other evil. You’ll be left wondering which force is stronger long after the credits have rolled.