I find Jeff Nichols to be an immensely frustrating filmmaker. He has a gift for capturing the small moments in specific places, and they always feel at odds with the genre trappings he tries to shove into his films. Character driven pieces morph into plot driven pieces, sapping all the intrigue out of them by the third act. His latest, Loving, does not have the ability to fall back on genre tropes and instead goes full force at character relationships. The result is his most rewarding and touching film to date, bolstered by an important true life tale that begged to be told.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton play Mildred and Richard Loving (a name so on the nose you’d scoff if it wasn’t true), an interracial couple who marry in the late 1950s. They are arrested as interracial marriage in Virginia is illegal and are sentenced to pack up their life and move out of state, away from their families and all they’ve known. Eventually, their case is taken up by the ACLU and eventually ends up at the Supreme Court, ultimately making interracial marriage legal across the United States. When you hear a story like that, what do you expect? Long court speeches? Bricks crashing through windows? Heated family contention? All the stuff that would turn this into your classic historical drama sure to be nominated in a plethora of Oscar categories? If so, you have forgotten what Jeff Nichols does so brilliantly.
The Lovings are mild-mannered people. They aren’t too keen on public appearances or making a scene. They just want to live their lives simply like everyone else. Richard Loving, in particular, is quite averse to being a mouthpiece for a cause. What they want is equality and living their life in exactly that way. What makes these people extraordinary is how ordinary they are, and instead of soapboxing for their cause, they show us how they are just like everyone else by example. And who better to capture the beauty in the ordinary than Jeff Nichols?
What he also captures that so many films dealing with racism do not capture is that every racist is not a mustache-twirling psychopath. Segregation is a societal institution, making people’s passive acceptance of the status quo even more terrifying while simultaneously showcasing how illogical and ignorant it is. A lot of white people who watch films about racism and see these overtly evil people like to think, “Oh, I wouldn’t be like that. I’d be one of the good ones.” However, showing the subtleties of racism makes it harder for a person to totally distance themselves from the issue and confronts their own prejudices, however slight they may be.
Negga and Edgerton are beautiful together. The two occupy each other’s spaces in a way only people in love can. They have a familiarity with one another where bigger showcases of their affection are not necessary to communicate how deeply connected the Lovings are. Nick Kroll also brings an interesting life (and some humor) to their ACLU appointed lawyer, and having recently seen him in Oh, Hello on Broadway, I was worried he would end up feeling broad better never does (Note: if you get the chance, go see that hilarious show).
Jeff Nichols finally found a story that perfectly suits his style of filmmaking. He didn’t need to shove in a big gunfight like the end of Mud or confusingly craft a sci-fi world like Midnight Special for his small character drama to reach the heights it could. Loving needs no frills in order for your heart to be tied up with these people. It is also an incredibly important movie that never boasts about how important it is. Nichols and company trust that the simplest way to tell the story about the people who changed forever how marriage is seen in this country is the best way. The simplicity may bore some people, but I was enraptured in the lives of the Lovings and am glad I can fully support a Jeff Nichols film after all this time.
Categories: Film Festival Reviews