The remarkable and sinister “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” begins in abrupt fashion. Jeremiah a Kentucky farmer wrestles with his daughter Sarah. She stabs him with a headless chicken, an act both shockingly absurd but perfectly judged to reel us into their particular den of iniquity. Jeremiah is a leering beard of a man, often filmed just as out of focus as his contemptible soul. What does he do in that red barn? Is his resemblance to Bob from “Twin Peaks” a mere coincidence or a teaser for the new series in 2016?
Handsome rather than beautiful, Sarah twerks with nature, writhing in the grass like a bad contemporary dancer, her airy narration whistles sweetly around our heads, “My lover can touch me everywhere at once.” She grasps like an octopus serving dinner with a variety of utensils. Sarah and her father’s existence is a stuttering, disjointed American myth, a gothic tale observed by goats and horses and cattle. What unearthly spirits are unleashed by all that breeding? What happens just over the horizon of decency?
Into this simmering maelstrom drives Akin, the modern itinerant worker seeking employment to feed his young family. His wedding ring conveniently hides itself in his glove compartment, nestling nicely next to his honesty and integrity. Between his sweaty labours Akin finds the time to quietly observe Sarah, framed inside fences, or doorways or windows. Messages from his wife go unheeded as his dark Steinbeck fantasies flash across the screen in masturbatory jump cuts.
When Akin’s wife finally decides to visit the farm earthy eroticism descends into feverish sex and bloody violence after a jaw dropping revelation at the dinner table. More horror movie than erotic thriller, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is a dirty, grubby, experimental affair taking its title from the Baptist hymn “Farewell to a Christian Sister” that ends in the line: “where no farewell tear is shed.” Exactly whom we should weep for is up for grabs but Josephine Decker’s movie could easily sit on the shoulder of “There Will Be Blood.”
The sweltering tension of “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” migrates to South America and Argentina in Benjamin Naishtat’s “History of Fear.” This time Decker’s free flowing camera is replaced by a stationary observer-cold and severe when judging the lives of its subjects. Here a middle-class suburb north of Buenos Aires is in the midst of a heat wave and with it comes a series of unexplained events that threaten the community.
Again the opening flings us into the film; we’re riding in a chopper over neat rows of swimming pools and golf courses, we could be a door gunner but instead we hear warnings of an eviction order from on board speakers, “Testing, testing.” Are the wealthy soon to be at the mercy of the poor who are about to lose their homes? On the ground a roller coaster is static and in a fast food joint a youth slowly crawls around the floor, disconcerting to the rich clientele, creepy for the security guard who has to stop the strange protest.
Naishtat refuses to let his audience identify with any of his characters, instead they come and go but are no more than guests in the various vignettes that increase the creeping sense of dread as the film develops. Why does the son of a female cleaner allow his mother’s employer to subject him to a series of ordered facial expressions? Something seems to lurk in the forest on the edge of the suburbs, insidious in the darkness that envelops a civilized dinner party or the confines of a broken down lift.
Why did a hypnotic alarm suddenly trigger in the middle of the day and why do the lower classes have to duck their heads as they drive by exclusive country clubs in a security car? What Haneke inspired demon is coming back to upset the comfortable life of so many-the ghosts of the military junta and their human rights record? During the last unsettling scenes the lights suddenly come back on illuminating the dinner guests, traces of a Spielberg alien abduction in the air. Where exactly the “History of Fear” wants to take us is unclear but the journey is fascinatingly dark.