Thursday, November 3, 2016

Movie Review: Loving

Directed by: Jeff Nichols.
Written by: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Ruth Negga (Mildred Loving), Joel Edgerton (Richard Loving), Michael Shannon (Grey Villet), Marton Csokas (Sheriff Brooks), Nick Kroll (Bernie Cohen), Terri Abney (Garnet Jeter), Alano Miller (Raymond Green), Jon Bass (Phil Hirschkop).
Loving is an uncommonly quiet, subtle film about the couple at the center of a Supreme Court case in the 1960s, that resulted in interracial marriage being legalized nationwide. That probably sounds like the recipe for a typical, inspiring Oscar-bait type film, and in the hands of most writer/directors, it almost definitely would be. But this film was written and directed by Jeff Nichols – who in his first four films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special – has established himself as the premiere filmmaker of the American South of his generation – treating his characters with respect, and refusing to turn them into the caricatures they so often are onscreen. To be honest, the fact that he had not made a film dealing with race in the South to this point in his career is kind of curious – but he corrects that with Loving – and does so in a quietly powerful way.
The film stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving. The film opens and they are already in love, and she’s pregnant. He buys a plot of land in their small, Virginia hometown – and the pair head off to Washington DC to get married. When they return, they are arrested by the Sheriff (Marton Csokas) – and end up having to except a plea deal to avoid a jail sentence. If they leave the state for 25 years, they can avoid jail. They head to Washington – their small family grows, but both miss their families, and their life in Virginia. Eventually, the ACLU takes up their case – appealing all the way to the Supreme Court, and the family quietly moves back to Virginia into an isolated farm house.
What makes Loving different from other films of its kind, is how subtle and quiet the film is – and the respect it pays to its characters. This is not a film filled with big speeches and personalities – even the eventual Supreme Court hearing is subdued, and viewed only briefly in passing. Every character in the film is treated with respect – the Southern Sheriff maybe a racist, but he’s not a sneering villain spouting out racial slurs – like more than one other character in the film all he really says to Richard is “You really should have known better”. The heart of the film are the two lead performances. Joel Edgerton has never been better – his Richard is a man of few words – he doesn’t want to be the center of attention, he just wants to be left alone. When he tells his lawyer he won’t attend the Supreme Court hearing, and is asked what he wants him to the say to the judges, he takes a beat and then replies simply “Tell them I love my wife”. For Richard, that should be more than enough explanation for anyone. For her part, Negga undergoes a quiet transformation in the film – near the beginning – as she is arrested, and then forced to move to Washington, she seems smaller and scared all the time. Throughout the film, she becomes stronger – more steely eyed and resolved to correct what she thinks (correctly) is a great injustice to her family. Like her husband, more than anything, she just want to be left alone to live the way she wants to. The subtle power of these two performances are not easy to explain – but they brilliantly underline the films overall tone.
In many ways, the film is probably the least complex of Nichols films to date. It’s pretty much impossible to oppose interracial marriage in 2016 unless you are an admitted racist. The film lacks the quality of Nichols’ other films – that remain fascinating because their main characters are complex, and make mistakes – and it’s easy to see them in multiple different ways. Yet, what Loving lacks in that complexity, it makes up for in its quiet, observational style – the way Nichols and his cast create these characters, and the lives they live – makes you feel their love for each other. Films about racism in the South are often more bombastic than this – but in Loving Nichols shows the insidiousness of the quiet racism – and the real world costs it has on the people who live through it. It’s a film of sneaky power that builds throughout its runtime – culminating in moments that are unforgettable. It’s also a film that lingers in your brain – and heart – long after it’s over. Loving is even more proof that Nichols is one of the best filmmakers currently working.

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