Loving proves Jeff Nichols has emerged as one of American’s best director of actors.
For a movie that chronicles the true story of one of the most important Supreme Court cases in American history, Loving is an oddly understated experience. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) treats the 1967 decision that removed the ban on interracial marriage with disarming delicacy, focusing on quiet emotions rather than the contentious nature of the case. And it’s not like he didn’t have the opportunity. There are scenes that take place in seedy backwoods jailhouses and situations that teeter on violence and tragedy. The climactic sequence takes place in the United States Supreme Court Building and seems groomed to showcase a series of fiery debates. But we don’t even see the justices themselves—they appear as blurred, distant figures before the ACLU lawyers who are pleading their case—and the moment ends with a matter-of-fact nod instead of a grandiloquent gesture. Dramatically, the movie feels about three notches below where it should be, and yet the story retains its emotional impact and historical relevance. The strategy here is to avoid melodrama and embrace a series of small, pure qualities that illustrate, without ever feeling trite or mundane, that most enduring of narrative themes: love conquers all.
Stylistically, Nichols is taking a toned-approach to the genre that Loving nominally belongs to, a method he also applied to Midnight Special, the other movie he released this year. That film plays like Spielberg with the lights down, a kind of muted reimagining of a sci-fi crowd-pleaser that approaches CGI effects with appropriate wonder and welcome rarity. Loving, meanwhile, is a historical biopic that dares to focus on the emotions of its character rather than the situation that surrounds them. The film opens with Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a white man and a black woman living and dating in rural Virginia in the late ’50s. “I’m pregnant,” she tells him one hot summer evening, enveloped in the ominously steady chirp of surrounding crickets and the overwhelming darkness of the night sky. A long pause seems to foretell disaster, but Richard’s relaxed yet enthused response zaps the moment of any tension. Suddenly, a scene that felt like a depiction two people on the verge of chaos immediately becomes a beautiful image of two lovers ready to embrace a future together.
Of course, chaos does bare down upon them, but Nichols doesn’t always call attention to it. Before the stakes are truly heightened, we see the couple at home within their community, a poor farm town of blue collar workers racially integrated enough to make their relationship a nonissue. They have a tightknit and supportive set of friends and family. Local law enforcement, on the other hand, isn’t as kindly. When the police learn that Richard and Mildred crossed state lines to get married in Washington D.C., they arrest the couple in the dead of night and toss them in jail. Richard’s family bails him out, but Mildred, in her last trimester of pregnancy, has to stay for five whole days. It’s a horrendous circumstance, but the scenes unfold without a single raised voice, corny musical cue or dramatic camera trick. The couple can’t do anything but accept their fate, and neither can we; rather than use conventional devices to play up the obvious injustice of the situation, Nichols focuses on the actors’ desperate faces and heaving chests as they suffer inwardly. He doesn’t need to spell it out. We know the situation is unjust because we have the optics of history; we know the characters are in pain because Nichols allows us to truly know who they are.
The film doesn’t exist on the bubble of emotion. The Lovings have more children, and are temporarily forced to leave the comfort and familiarity of their hometown for the rougher enclaves of D.C., but there’s no hinting that the drama will burst open. Instead, Nichols allows the audience to luxuriate in tremendous period details and evocative characterizations. He turns rural life into a stage for cinematic imagination, including a tremendous sequence in which Life magazine photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) visits the family at their secluded farmhouse. The couple is in the middle of their famous court battle, and the country is taking notice. Late in the evening, Villet sits with his back against the wall and observes the Lovings relaxing in front of the TV, his head on her lap as they laugh at the screen. Villet snaps a photo and marvels at the moment, at two people wholly at peace and in love despite the pressure they’re facing, and in that moment, we become him, similarly awestruck by such a simple yet moving image.
Nichols’ low-key approach is sure to irritate less patient moviegoers, and even those open to the the director’s subtle approach might find themselves getting restless. The key lies in Edgerton and Negga, who give the best performances any actors have given in a Nichols film. (And that includes Shannon’s lauded turn in Take Shelter, not to mention Midnight Special). Casting choices are curious throughout the film—comedian Nick Kroll, playing the lawyer who gets to the ball rolling and pushes the case all the way to the Supreme Court, sticks out like a sore thumb—but Edgerton and Negga form an emotional core that pushes the film past some occasional slow stretches. If nothing else, Loving proves Nichols has emerged as one of American’s best director of actors. The way he nurtures Edgerton and Negga’s performances speaks to a singular understanding of film performance and character interplay, and more importantly, the nuances and particulars of love and relationships as they exist in cinema, and therefore, in our lives.