Monday, November 17, 2014

Dual Movie Review: Butter on the Latch & Thou Wast Lovely and Milk

Butter on the Latch
Directed by: Josephine Decker.
Written by: Josephine Decker.
Starring: Sarah Small (Sarah), Isolde Chae-Lawrence (Isolde), Charlie Hewson (Steph).

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Directed by: Josephine Decker.
Written by: Josephine Decker and David Barker.
Starring: Joe Swanberg (Akin), Sophie Traub (Sarah), Robert Longstreet (Jeremiah), Kristin Slaysman (Drew), Matt Orme (Caren), Geoff Marslett (Richard).

Debuting in theaters, and on Fandor, last Friday Josephine Decker’s first two films – Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely – made less than a year apart announces an interesting new talent to the independent film world. A former performance artist (she was apparently the woman who got naked in front of fellow performance artist Marina Abramovic during her The Artist is Present exhibit – and seen in the excellent documentary about Abramovic), Decker’s first two films are existential horror films that slowly build a feeling of dread throughout their slight running times. Butter on the Latch is the first, and better, of the two films – largely improvised by its stars, and set mainly during a New Age retreat in California, as two best friends – Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) seem fine at first, but are torn apart by tension – that is only partially explained. We constantly get have the sense that something bad is about to happen – and it does in the end. Or does it? Thou Was Mild and Lovely was scripted by Decker, and is more conventionally satisfying, but also slight less ambitious and ambiguous, and leads to a more standard climax. Both are good little films though, and are best seen together for maximum impact.

Butter on the Latch opens in New York – with a performance art piece starring the main character Sarah. On the streets after the performance, she gets a frantic phone call from a friend, although we only hear Sarah’s part of the conversation. Her friend may be being held somewhere, or perhaps just had a one night stand gone bad. Sarah seems about to lose it – but then goes back to normal, dancing at a club, and then waking up the next day, naked, with strangers – a situation she flees. A smash cut later, and we’re in California with Sarah, and her best friend Isolde – who has just gone through a breakup. They’re at some sort of retreat –the type of place where all the campers participate in a drum circle around a campfire. The tension between the two of them grow – especially after Sarah starts flirting with another camper, Steph (Charlie Hewson). The two women are best friends, but in many ways opposites – Isolde seems comfortable in her own skin, and with her own sexuality – while Sarah feels like an outsider to both. There are some creepy scenes of the pair – and later just Sarah – walking through the forest at night, and talk of Eastern European folklore, about dragons and spirits. Is something out there? Does that explain the finale? Or is it all just Sarah? The movie doesn’t explain which is part of its strength.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is more straightforward. A farmhand, Akin (indie stalwart Joe Swanberg) is hired to work the summer for Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet) and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub). The father and daughter are close – perhaps not quite incestuously close, but pretty close to that. Jeremiah is a loudmouth bully, who belittles the mostly silent Akin every chance he gets. Sophie is overtly sexual towards Akin – but also somewhat disturbed. Akin is played almost as a blank by Swanberg – a character who lies constantly, but has his darker side as well – although Swanberg never really lets us see that side of him.

Of the three characters, really only Sarah is of interest. Jeremiah is too one dimensionally gross (an unfortunate cliché about Southern farmers Decker indulges in) to be of real interest, and Swanberg’s Akin, even though he is the central character, is such a blank that he goes beyond ambiguous and just becomes dull. But Sarah is torn between these two characters anyway – damaged, like the men, but more unpredictably so. You’re never quite sure what she’s going to do next – and Traub is great in the role.

Decker indulges in some pretty silly clichés, and narrative paths, throughout the two films – purposefully so for the most part (I cannot believe that Decker means us to take a scene where we see two people engaged in sex from the point of view of a cow seriously). The cinematography is almost all handheld, and the editing intuitive (Decker does the editing herself), and in both films she succeeds in building up a mounting sense of dread – the promise of violence not unlike a well-executed horror film. While Decker does give us the ending we expect in both films – to a certain degree anyway – they also work (more so in Butter than Thou, but I digress).

Neither of the films are great – they are more than a little rough around the edges, and indulge a little too much in clichés, both in terms of character and narrative. But they also show a promising start to a directing career for Decker. She has worked as an actress before for Swanberg – who returned the favor here – but in just two films, Decker has shown more talent than Swanberg so far. I know who’s next film I’m looking forward to more.

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