Jeff Nichols' films are very difficult to describe. They're gentle, patient, and quiet, but most importantly, they're incredibly distinctive. When you see a film by Nichols, you know it. The Arkansas-born director has a tendency to take genres and twist them to fit his style, resulting in a fresh take on an iconic American idea. After bursting onto the scene with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Nichols hit another level with Mud, an atmospheric take on the Mark Twain mythology of the American South. The director followed that up with Midnight Special, an ephemeral, mystifying take on the classic John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg sci-fi chase movies of yesteryear. Both films are charming and singular in their own right, but I have to admit that I didn't adore either (although I do plan on revisiting the latter many times in the future). Nichols is a very accomplished filmmaker, and I like his minimalist, humanist take on various genres. I'm just not sure if I'll ever love one of his movies.
Loving feels like Nichols' take on the esteemed Oscar bait sub-genre, a sweeping historical romance that has the director's classic touch. It's beautiful, well-acted, timely, and another assured piece of work from Nichols. Did I love it? Unfortunately, I did not. Maybe it wasn't manipulative enough for me, or maybe it is truly lacking in some areas, but it just didn't hit me in the way that I was hoping it would. Nichols is a very restrained filmmaker, and while that can be refreshing at first, eventually I always start hoping for more. But nonetheless, Loving is an impressive film when judged on its own merits, a moving portrait of two deeply ordinary people who were thrust into an extraordinary situation. Led by the outstanding duo of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, Loving is a topical, quietly powerful rallying cry for gradual progress and the universal idea that all love is equal.
Based on the story of the couple that changed America forever, Loving chronicles a decade in the life of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton). It's 1958 in Virginia, and they're just like any other young couple. Richard works a construction job and fixes his car in his free time, but his goal is to eventually marry Mildred and build a house for her. They take the trip up to Washington, D.C. to get married, and hang the marriage certificate proudly in their new house. However, things don't stay quiet for long. One night, the local police sheriff (Martin Csokas) bursts into their home with a small army of officers, arresting the couple for violating the Racial Integrity Act. The Lovings are forced to plead guilty to avoid prison time, and they're essentially ex-communicated from the state of Virginia.
The family isn't intent on turning this into a big deal, so they quietly pack their things and move to Washington, only to return to Virginia once or twice for special occasions. But once the NAACP and other civil rights groups get a hold of their case, the Lovings end up becoming the focal point of a battle that they never could have anticipated. Led by rookie lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and the brilliant legal mind of Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), the Lovings end up reluctantly taking their case to the Supreme Court of the United States. With an unexpected amount of press coverage (including an iconic visit from a Life photographer, played by Michael Shannon) and the weight of the Civil Rights movement on their shoulders, the Lovings and their lawyers will make their case to the highest court in the land, with the hopes of changing America for the better.
On paper, Loving looks like great Oscar bait. Remarkable true story, timely subject matter, moving finale- it checks all the boxes, right? With that in mind, it's kind of surprising to realize that Loving is actually very, very far from being generic Academy fodder. In fact, I would almost say that it plays like the opposite of every other awards biopic ever made. Where other movies would go for a grand emotional moment, Loving stays silent, quietly working with its soft-spoken characters and delivering the subtle pathos of its story. There are no Oscar moments to be found here, even though the lead performances are stunning. Nichols gives us a near-reversal of the awards formula, a character study out to prove that iconic true stories don't have to be shamelessly manipulative and obvious. They can be reserved and still remain compelling.
Nichols' approach to this story and these characters is quite fascinating, even beyond the decidedly less showy execution. Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) portrays Richard and Mildred Loving as truly ordinary people thrown into an crazy, life-changing situation. Usually, when a filmmaker tries to normalize such important people in history, it comes off as forced and even a little tedious. Not in Loving. Richard and Mildred truly were everyday people, unremarkable in every aspect of their lives beyond this one act of love. They weren't fighting the fight with the leaders of the movement- they were just regular folks trying to live their lives. But in silently and slowly fighting for convictions, they were heroes in their own right. This provides a very interesting contrast to other films about famous agents of change, especially Nate Parker's upcoming Birth of a Nation, which bills Nat Turner as the "chosen one" in a way. Circumstances turned Richard and Mildred into the embodiment of heroism, and it's that devotion to normalcy that brings some truly poignant moments to Loving.
But even with the careful, mature direction of Nichols, Loving would be nothing without the spectacular performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Over the last several years, Edgerton has proven himself to be one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, a multi-hyphenate with the ability to play a wide range of characters. Edgerton has spent a good chunk of his career playing brash, arrogant individuals (The Great Gatsby, Exodus, Black Mass), which has made his recent series of roles much more impressive. He played a manipulative bullying victim in his directorial effort The Gift, and now, he's tackling a quiet man with a good heart. Richard Loving has no desire to be a hero, but he always wants to be a good person. This is his defining characteristic, and because of Edgerton's performance, you feel that humanity at every corner. "You tell the judge I love my wife," he says to Cohen as he prepares to go to the Supreme Court, in what just might be the most beautifully simple line of the year.
Negga is significantly less famous than Edgerton, but her stock has been on the rise over the last year, thanks to smaller roles in Preacher and Warcraft. After seeing Loving, there's no doubt in my mind that she'll be a star. Negga's Mildred is more forceful than Richard, willing to talk to the press and work with the lawyers to ensure that justice will be done. She wears the pain of their oppression on her face during the most intense parts, and you can always see what these hateful laws have done to her. But during all of that pain and tragedy, Negga and Edgerton show the Lovings' passion for each other. They love each other- it's no more complicated than that. This is their show from start to finish, but Nichols leaves room for some great supporting turns as well. Michael Shannon has a terrific one-scene cameo as Grey Villet, while Nick Kroll also has some memorable moments in a much more serious role than usual.
Loving is an imperfect film. Like all of Nichols' projects, the pacing is a tad too slow, the emotional punch is a bit too muted, and the overall impact is never felt as deeply as it should be. I wish that Loving was a little better, but even with its flaws, this is still essential viewing. With an assured filmmaker at the helm, this drama serves as a wonderful reminder of the ordinary people who changed the world. Led by two dynamite, Oscar-worthy performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, Loving is a patient, rock-solid portrayal of one of the most important Supreme Court cases of all time. It's not flashy, it's not manipulative, and it's not perfect, but I have a feeling that the quiet power of this beautiful love story will resonate with audiences around the world.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.3/10)
Images courtesy of Focus Features