“Loving”, the fifth film (and second of 2016) from writer/director Jeff Nichols, continues the Arkansas-born filmmaker’s impressive streak of well-received movies. Through his films Nichols has revealed a unique and refreshing cinematic voice and has emerged as a true rural America storyteller. The Mark Twain influences are undeniable.
“Loving” examines the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. But the film does so not by stressing the court room. Instead it focuses on the love between Richard and Mildred Loving. Nichols trusts the potency of their story enough to keep his approach admirably subdued. It’s sometimes a bit too low-key, but there is no denying the film’s subtle power.
The performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are superb. Edgerton’s Richard is a simple but devoted man who wants to love and take care of his wife. Negga portrays Mildred with a quiet grace and dignity. She’s both sweet and gentle, but she’s also Richard’s emotional anchor. The Lovings saw their lives turned upside down in the summer of 1958. In the dark of night the Caroline County sheriff (here played by Marton Csokas) and his deputies stormed their home and arrested the newlywed couple for breaking Virginia’s laws on interracial marriage.
What followed was a series of arrests and court appearances until their case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Nichols doesn’t spend much time with the legal wranglings. He sets them up but mostly shows their effects. It’s a wise choice since they are when the film is at its weakest. Contributing to this is the odd casting of Nick Kroll as a young, green ACLU lawyer who takes the Lovings’ case. It’s a strangely stiff performance with Kroll routinely looking as if he’s holding in laughter. John Bass doesn’t fair much better as a constitutional law expert helping with the case.
There are some fantastic supporting turns though. Nichols favorite Michael Shannon has a small but fun role as a LIFE magazine photographer profiling the Lovings and their case. And I adored Sharon Blackwood’s performance as Richard’s straight-shooting midwife mother.
Perhaps my favorite thing about “Loving” is this – Richard and Mildred aren’t activists. They aren’t vocal, aggressive crusaders for a cause. They don’t seek the attention. They don’t want the press. The Lovings just want to live their lives together. That simple innocent desire highlights the despicable nature of the Virginia law far more effectively than if this had been a more pointed activism film. Through this emotionally detailed couple we learn all we need to know about the true rights and wrongs of the story and it invests us on a much more intimate level.
While it can be a bit slow at times and the approach may not be abrasive enough for some people, “Loving” gracefully and truthfully tackles an issue by putting its focus on the human element. Nichols’ delicate portrayal is slyly potent and speaks volumes about its subject without leaning on layers of dialogue. Instead Nichols asks his audience to watch, observe, and feel a closeness with his two central characters. If you do that the power of the message will be unavoidable.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
This was definitely Nichols’ most subdued work to date. And while that didn’t always work for me, there’s no denying the power behind its story. Well said, Keith!
Thanks. I think the subdued approach works both for and against it. And I’m still not sure about Nick Kroll’s performance. Didn’t work for me.
Yeah, that was a questionable casting decision. It almost compromised the tone of the film every now and again.
I thought so too. Thankfully Nichols didn’t spend a lot of time there. He knew were the film’s strengths were.
It’s one I’m sure I’ll rent down the way. Nice review, Keith. I appreciate Jeff Nichols and hope he stays active for decades to come.
Thank you. I love his rural America sensibility. Also every one of his movies put emphasis on characters which I’ve always appreciated. Have you seen all of his films (aside from Loving)? I think Shotgun Stories may be the trickiest to find but it is well worth searching out.
Yes, I think quite a few. I haven’t seen Shotgun Stories, but I loved Mud. It is my favorite so far.
Mud is a delight. Filmed just a few miles east of me. And it certain revitalized Matthew McConaughey’s career.
Jeff Nichols is fast becoming one of my favorite new discoveries. Every single one of his films I think I have scored as high as I can, which might be showing bias on my part but I just love what he does. A couple of uncanny observations you make here: 1) the Mark Twain influences are indeed there, I can’t believe I haven’t picked up on that before. 2) Nick Kroll. While I was scared he would bring the production down, I thought he offered great work here but I cannot deny his was the weakest performance. And he so totally looked like he was trying to restrain himself all throughout. Even still, for me this was a refreshing change of pace from his typically annoying character work.
Nice review as always sir
Thanks Tom. I’m so glad to hear such enthusiasm for Nichols and it is steadily growing among moviegoers. I have been a fan since Take Shelter which I still believe is my favorite of his. I went back and caught Shotgun Stories and have seen everything he has done since. I’ve been crazy about every single movie he has made. Perhaps I’m a little biased (as a fellow Arkansan), but he is a must-watch director for me.
Being a fan of Jeff Nichols, I really wanted to see this but it disappeared from the theaters too quickly which was becoming very common last year.
Huge Nichols fan as well. This film did have a short time on the screen even here in his home state. It’s definitely not my favorite Nichols film but I still like it a ton.
I know Nick Kroll from Parks & Recreation as ‘the Douche’ so it was so odd seeing him in such a serious movie!
Loving was a little too quiet and slow for me to really get into it, but I didn’t know the details of the true story so it was interesting and enlightening for me at the very least.
Great review 🙂
Thanks! I think its quietness is both an asset and a liability. I like how it doesn’t pound us over the head with its message. That actually made the messaging more powerful for me. But at the same time it is a little too quiet (as you mentioned) and that doesn’t always make for great cinema.
I’m glad you liked this too! Nichols can do no wrong, I’ve adored every one of his movies. You’re right about Kroll always looking like he’s holding in laughter, he should probably stick to comedy.
Kroll was a bit jarring for me. As for Nichols, I completely agree. I too have loved everything he has done. I really hope he sticks with these types of rural intimate movies. He knocks them out of the park.
I can’t believe that I still haven’t seen this. For some strange reason, it wasn’t in any theaters near me. Your review definitely made me want to see it more!
It had a weird theatrical release. I don’t think it stayed anywhere very long. It’s a shame because it’s a good film. Have you seen any other films from Jeff Nichols? He is really cementing himself as a top-notch filmmaker.
Your review was sublime. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen any Jeff Nichols movies. But I’m getting my butt into gear and rectifying that.
Thanks so much. Ooooooh buddy, make Nichols a priority. I’ve been singing his praises since Take Shelter. He has a wonderful cinematic voice. I’ve loved everything he’s done so far.
I’m so lazy and behind on a lot of movies, been gradually getting there.
Look at it this way – you have lots to look forward to. 😀
When you put it like that, it sounds promising!